Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ + 80’s Nostalgia Marketing

In Featured, Industry Insights, Katherine Sanderson by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Katherine Sanderson –

It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence of 80’s pop culture in recent years, with tv shows such as Netflix’s Stranger Things and GLOW, and the horror film IT. There have also been less successful attempts, such as last year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake and ABC’s tv movie remake of Dirty Dancing, to name a few. And let’s not forget all the new versions of tv series Dynasty, Twin Peaks, and Heathers, and the upcoming film remakes of Overboard, Big Trouble in Little China, and Clue coming to theaters in the next year.

In response to this retro content, marketing strategists at studios have moved to capitalize on the nostalgia these shows induce. Looking at Stranger Things, which arguably did it best, the series and its marketing have reveled in the best of the 1980s, alluding to films like E.T., The Goonies, and Back to the Future… which all happen to be films either directed or produced by Steven Spielberg

And now, in an ironic twist, Steven Spielberg’s newest film Ready Player One is also trying to market itself as a 1980s joy ride. But people aren’t sure they like it.

An Overload of 1980s Nostalgia Marketing

People have been openly frustrated about some of the marketing tactics used with Ready Player One. So to find out why, let’s first break down the major marketing pushes for Ready Player One, which has been full of 1980s references (including 1970s and 1990s ones).

At Comic-Con last year, in July 2017, Warner Bros released the first trailer which was set to the song ‘Pure Imagination’ from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (it was also was the first glimpse of the Iron Giant character from the 1999 film Iron Giant) The next trailer, released in December, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, the lead single from their 1984 album, served as the background music. Then a few weeks ago, the studio released 12 poorly-made remakes of classic movie posters, most based on classic 80s movies such as The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, and Labyrinth.

This is method called ‘nostalgia marketing’, and it has been very popular the last few years, being used by major brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s and Old Navy. In the age of social media, where millennials can share these nostalgic advertisements, companies have been quick to adopt this method.

But as Don Draper, the iconic 1960s advertising executive from AMC’s Mad Men, said: “Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent… in Greek ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone…It’s a time machine…It takes us to a place where we ache to go again…It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.”

But as with any ‘old wound’ or any carousel, nostalgia marketing can certainly make you sick if it is overdone. Some potential difficulties with nostalgia marketing are as follows:

  1. It can alienate those who don’t fondly remember or weren’t alive in the 1980s.
  2. It can alienate immigrants and foreign audiences, where 1980s American culture is not familiar.
  3. It can simply be overdone.

Ready Player One seems to qualify in all three of these categories, especially the latter. While the first two problems may provide an obstacle to some minority segments, their biggest problem is that nostalgia marketing has been overdone.

Looking at an economic principle called the ‘law of diminishing marginal value’, we can understand why this is. According to this principle, the more that a consumer receives of a certain good, the more the perceived value will decrease as each additional unit consumed. Such as a primal response to food, where even with the most delicious of foods, if constantly consumed, the consumer will naturally become sick. So if US audiences keep getting fed 1980s nostalgia marketing, eventually they will tire of it. And general audiences seemed to have reached that point.

Why Steven Spielberg Isn’t To Blame

But let’s be fair. Coming to Steven’s defense, there are two important reasons why there is such a heavy presence of 1980s nostalgia in the marketing of Ready Player One.

First of all, The film went into production BEFORE all of the recent 1980s revival in media.

As film students know, it takes major motion pictures a long time to get from script to screen. Warner Bros optioned the rights to Cline’s book back in 2010, shortly after Random House’s Crown Publishing Group had bought the book rights. After 4-5 years of development, in March 2015, Steven announced that he would indeed be directing the film adaptation of Ready Player One. And then after a year of pre-production, filming began on July 4, 2016 (for perspective, the first season of Stranger Things came out on July 15th, 11 days later).

Secondly, the premise of the sci-fi book that the film is based upon revolves around a VR universe that is wholly based on 1980s nostalgia. Ernest Cline, the author of Ready Player One, is a self-professed 80s geek. His book was about a future dystopia where the only people who can save the world are ’80s pop culture obsessed. At one point Cline even owned two DeLoreans, like the one from Back to the Future, one of which he drove cross-country on his initial book tour. The second DeLorean, however, he gave away in an elaborate contest to promote the book’s paperback release. He created a scavenger hunt, like in his novel, literally by carefully placing ‘clues’ in the form of book typos, within his own book.

But looking at the marketing campaign of Steven’s upcoming movie adaptation, one might say that it went overboard. But in their key demographic, the marketing seems to be succeeding.

That target audience is ‘gamers’.

The Strength of Marketing Ready Player One to Gamers

In the video games/VR community, Spielberg and Warner Bros have made an impression, and that’s been by using cultural marketing tactics to target the gamers. As I talked about in a previous article, utilizing cultural marketing (in which separate efforts are put forth to market to specific cultural groups) has proven to be very effective in marketing feature films, as it creates buzz within a community, which then spreads to society at large. Disney utilized this with Black Panther promoting African culture and with Coco promoting Mexican culture. Now arguably, Ready Player One is doing this for gaming culture. Here are some of the best ways Ready Player One has done it:

  1. Warner Bros made their marketing like a game itself: utilizing QR codes to unlock unseen featurettes, and riddles on Twitter that can unlock classic games online.
  2. Those vintage video games, and more games, are available on an online arcade, which offers classic games like Joust, Rootbeer Tapper, Sinistar, Robotron, First to Key, and Defender.
  3. They also had a ‘Join the Leaderboard’ contest, with the prize being one of three ‘keys’: prizes from Atom Tickets, Spotify, and Lyft. The sweepstakes closed on March 12th with winners will be announced in three stages: the Copper Key winner on March 19th; the Jade Key winner on March 21st; and the Crystal Grand Prize winner on March 26th.
  4. At SXSW, at the debut event for Ready Player One, HTC showed off eight Ready Player One-inspired VR experiences. And as of Saturday, the company has released three of these VR experiences on Viveport in a single download called Ready Player One: OASIS Beta.

For gamers, there have been few successful film adaptation of video games. Looking at 2016’s Assassin’s Creed, despite boasting big name talent like Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons, the film failed to connect with its intended audience in the US, making only $55 million at the box office (although internationally it made over $200 million) Tomb Raider seems to be doing better, making $20 million in the US in the first weekend. But Ready Player One could be the film gamers have been waiting for, one that combines their classic retro games with the immersiveness of VR.


From my analysis, I believe the marketing team of Ready Player One seems to be using a combination of of marketing tactics (i.e. use a combination of both, but more cultural marketing for gamers, and then more nostalgia marketing for general audiences). Unfortunately, their goals of attracting people outside the gaming community seemed to have fallen flat as people saw right through their promotions full of high-octane 1980s paraphernalia. But luckily, early reviews seem to think that this film’s humor, visuals, and overall energy will appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.

Where Warner Bros. and Steven Spielberg succeeded was in their approach to depicting the gaming community. By recognizing that it was not the characters, but the feelings of the adrenaline, the fear, and the fun, that draws in a player. We will just have to wait and see if those same feelings of adrenaline, fear, and fun in Ready Player One will draw in an audience.

About the Author

Katherine Sanderson  is a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University’s MBA in Film Producing (Class of 2016).