Brands to the Future

Courtesy of Universal Studios

First up, I won’t apologise for that bad pun.

It’s nowhere near as bad as the shameless attempts by brands to link themselves to “Back to the Future” day, 21st October 2015.

88mph. Flux capacitors. Hoverboards. Huey Lewis and the News.

It’s all fair game as the biggest companies try to cash in on product tie-ins 26 years in the making.


So what’s all the fuss about? Well way back in Back to the Future II, the 1989 sequel to …uh… Back to the Future, Dr Emmett Brown takes Marty McFly to the future. And he just so happens to key in today’s date as their destination.

The famous console from the Delorean time machine.

In an attempt to stop Marty’s kids from ruining their lives, Doc sets up a convoluted series of events involving the usual madcap antics. It’s all good fun, and retreading the original film’s plot was definitely an interesting twist on the tired time travelling formula.

The Back to the Future trilogy is definitely worthy of “classic” status and I am personally very fond of it, especially because those gullwing Deloreans were built just outside my hometown. I rewatch the films every so often and enjoy quoting random bits whenever the mood takes me. So far, so what. Right?

Well apparently that sort of affection isn’t enough, as 2015 has been plagued with BttF references from the get go. Literally January 1st 2015. Once the Internet (yep, those guys again) cottoned on that this year was the year we were hit with an onslaught of thinkpieces and listicles on “what Back to the Future II got right” about 2015. It’s been intense.

For whatever reason, people like stuff they know. And for marketers, Back to the Future seems to be the motherload of perfect stuff.

Brands have been even worse. Lexus released a working hoverboard, more or less. Pepsi launched their limited edition “Pepsi Perfect” bottle. Nike have been touting their MAGs for the last few years, and supposedly we’ll see an actual self tying pair soon. Expect there to be many more tenuous links being made all over Twitter throughout the day.

Nostalgia sells. For whatever reason, people like stuff they know. And for marketers, Back to the Future seems to be the motherload of perfect stuff. The film and the mythology surrounding it throws up a perfect storm of millennial-bait, from that gooey nostalgia you get from revisiting a favourite film, to internet ready memes and references. The screenwriters may not have picked a very realistic time to travel to, but 2015 is the perfect time to capitalise on all this stuff.

Courtesy of Universal Studios

The technology has caught up just enough to be of genuine interest, while leaving enough room to laugh at the things that they got comically wrong. Even Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox have joined in, comparing our real 2015 to the fictional version in a spot for Toyota. Though what got to me most was how much older the real guys look compared to their old-age makeup in the films.

For most, “Back to the Future Day” will be a fun excuse to rewatch some great films and indulge in some harmless quoting on the internet. Indeed, the marketing departments and social media interns at some of the world’s biggest companies are going to have a blast. But for me, it’s all a little sad.

It’s part of a wider trend, where we’re seeing “pop culture placement” in adverts rather than “product placement” in pop culture.”

Maybe this has all hit me at once what with the imminent release of the new Star Wars film. That’s another classic franchise that has been used to sell all manner of crap through the years, and you can’t really argue when the films themselves were designed to shift toys. But it’s part of a wider trend, where we’re seeing “pop culture placement” in adverts rather than “product placement” in pop culture. What may have been innovative back in the day has morphed into a lazy form of advertising that relies on cheaply inserting our favourite things alongside products.

There is also a certain sense of fan ownership relating to these films, and brands exploiting this goes against the spirit of things. Yes, some fans will buy whatever happens to be even slightly related to the things they love, but a lot more resent being so blatantly pandered to. “Nerd culture” has been especially hard done by in recent years, as marketers strive to capitalise on that wealthy subset of internet dwelling folk with disposable incomes. Whether it’s Back to the Future or The Force Awakens, there’s almost a pride in being a “nerd” that is into things like this. And brands know it.

But as Ben Wyatt points out in Parks and Recreation, Star Wars IS NOT THAT NERDY. And neither is Back to the Future. Whatever the “geek chic” is that advertisers look to sell is sort of redundant when yes, everybody has seen Star Wars. And the same goes for Back to the Future. It’s one of the most popular films of all time; big deal that you like it. So does she. So does that guy. So does your teacher.

So I guess I might stick Back to the Future II on today, even if it feels like giving in to the hype. But if I’m not allowing myself to enjoy one of my favourite films then Biff Tannen wins.

We should enjoy the fun while it lasts. Blade Runner was set in 2019, and that’s going to be a lot more depressing.