We will never escape the commercials, not even in the future. The seas will overtake the coast, the ozone will blanche the air, the majority of humanity will be forced to subsist on a nutrient paste derived from amphetamines and cockroaches, and still an animated tiger will be trying to sell us Frosted Flakes.
I have accepted this, mostly. Wishing for a world without advertising is like wishing for a world without math — it violates every known principle of nature as we accept it. But what invariably gets on my nerves is when I sense the advertisers are really, really going out of their way to make their product seem appealing to me. My response is more visceral than rational. Who are you to sell this to me? Every synapse fires, every nostril flares, every sense memory of listening to Rage Against the Machine overwhelms the system, and I head down hateful roads.
The children of Stranger Things are, in a sense, totally fine; they’ve committed no major crimes, and they are admittedly precocious in their roles as total losers. Nonetheless, there’s too much of them on television. The first commercial with a Stranger Things star I remember seeing was a Fios ad, in which a Gaten Mazarazzo — Dustin, the kid with the lisp — rolls his bike down a picturesque street as his neighbor is unloading a television from a car. When he finds out his neighbor doesn’t have the high-speed internet service, he’s shocked. Doesn’t he know Fios is the best internet in town? “Guys!” he says, winking to the camera. “It’s not the ‘80s.”
There was more. There was a Dominos commercial patterned after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which the handsome Joe Keery raced home to get his pizza in time, dressed in a vaguely retro bomber jacket. There was a Hellmann’s commercial in which Finn Wolfhard used a set of Dungeons & Dragons die to make himself the perfect sandwich while following instructions branded with the font of the show. (It included mayonnaise, of course.) There was a series of CitiBank ads in which Millie Bobby Brown dared people to perform a series of embarrassing actions unless they were comfortable disclosing a part of their finances — which led them to all degrade themselves, rather than share something about the money they earn. “A lot of people don’t want to face anything that has to do with money,” says this millionaire 13-year-old, who presumably has never had to pay a bill. “I don’t get it. Is money really that scary?”
Celebrity endorsements are nothing new in advertising, nor are commercials in which actors slyly reference the roles they’re known for, no matter how obscure. (Of semi-recent note was this bizarre 2016 Toyota Prius commercial which reunited the Sobotka family from season 2 of The Wire.) But the sight of the Stranger Things kids pushing everything from Converse shoes to some Italian video player called the Casa 3 (they even invented a referential storyline, in which Will disappears again) felt more grating than usual, because it was too close to the way the show actually works. Stranger Things is a show which, amongst other things, trades on the audience’s yearning for a vaguely remembered era — in its case, the ‘80s, which is heavily referenced through pop culture and set design within the show. Many ‘80s properties have been revived in the modern era — Transformers, G.I. Joe, and The Smurfs amongst them — but Stranger Things is the first original show to be stitched wholecloth out of era-specific reference points. The story of Stranger Things is about childhood and parenthood and such, but the seduction lies in the sense of familiarity it creates — you remember what this kind of upbringing feels like, even if you don’t really.
This is how celebrity endorsement works, obviously. You get Jon Hamm to shill for a tax service because he seems like Don Draper when he’s in a suit, even though he can’t say he is for legal reasons. (The irony of Hamm — the star of a show implicitly about how advertising robs you of your humanity — starring in an advertisement is very rich.) But to see so many of these precocious children conscripted into such trickery makes me further distrust the insistence that this is all fun and games — that somehow a commercial can be amusing, or even good, when the fundamental concept is to hawk some shit to us by playing on our feelings. I shudder to think of the managers behind these child stars whispering in their ears: “Come on, it’s Fios. Take the money. It’ll be good for your college fund.” To watch someone like the talented Millie Bobby Brown make dozens of goofy faces to promote the Converse Chuck Taylor, as she does in one commercial, is the lie behind Stranger Things being exposed in real time — that if we can be made to feel this cheaply good about a shoe, then of course it would be the same for a monster show.
Is this a fussy, dramatic way to feel about a commercial? Well, sure, and you could apply a similar critique to just about any commercial. But I also work in media, where posts about Stranger Things are worth their weight in digital gold. Quizzes and listicles populate like rabbits ; sites cover the bands of the actors like they’re legitimate artistic enterprises, and not just an easy grab for traffic from a recognizant audience; the frequency of Stranger Things posts on some sites is high enough to make me suspect that someone at the top said “We’ve got to get more of this stuff up there.” I sense the cynical, craven desire to provide what the audience wants, because it’s what the audience wants. And if everyone is selling the business of Stranger Things, then there’s no reason why the actors themselves shouldn’t. It just feels like an inescapable, depressing thing that stands out even more in an inescapable, depressing field. But maybe, and this doesn’t sound great, I just feel like I’d want to shove any kid who tried to shame me for not having high-speed internet.