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Looking back to the futurists: Dissecting some of the 80s’ most sci-fi-tastic ads

09 . 10 . 20

Ah, the 80s. What an age.

A time of sparkling synthesisers and effervescent neon, where a futuristic, sci-fi-inspired aesthetic beamed itself up from the fringes of society and took its throne at the very centre of the popular zeitgeist. It may be more than 30 years since we waved goodbye to the 80s, but they never properly left us, did they? Not really.

Because though 2021 may be just around the corner, the 80s aesthetic is as popular as ever. From TV shows like Stranger Things to reissued retro games consoles to a new era of reverb-decorated synth-pop, we can see that fateful decade’s influence everywhere.

Nostalgia sells, and the B2B marketing world is no different.

delorian 1

Take a trip in the Delorian back to your average tech-firm C-suite exec’s childhood and chances are you’ll be hopping out somewhere near the 80s. An era of sci-fi-fueled excitement that inspired a generation. Star Wars, Tron, Space Invaders, Back to the Future…these are the things that inspired the minds behind today’s technological revolution. Is it any wonder, then, that a spot of retrofuturistic marketing is so adept at reaching them? 

So with that in mind, when Digital Radish’s creative team met up for our weekly creative inspiration session last week, we decided to focus on futuristic marketing examples from the past. Those nostalgic treasures that would have seemed lightyears ahead of their time back in the 80s, but that in the present day – from our comfortable post-millennial outpost – gave us a more varied, complex mix of responses. It was quite the journey. Sometimes they were haunting. Sometimes baffling. Other times – more often than not, in fact – they were downright hilarious. 

But always, whether they were making us laugh, making us gasp or simply rekindling the excited 80s child that lies somewhere within all of us, they evoked a strong response. A positive response, that we’d love to share.

And so, without further ado, here are our top 8 retrofuturistic ad tropes, served with some truly spectacular examples. Why not use them to create your own nostalgic marketing campaign? If we’ve not got there first, that is. Enjoy…


Trope 1

This was a format that we found endlessly enjoyable, if a bit odd. We ended up christening it the ‘Space Invader’ technique due to its visual similarities with the popular arcade game. Essentially, this was a green-screen scenario, where the ad moved between various scenes with the product in question slapped awkwardly in the middle. It’s simplistic, and not perhaps up to the heights of videography we’re used to today, but it works – particularly for home electronics, where the product itself actually resembles some kind of UFO. 

How we’d use it today

This kind of thing would be so easy to do, and with the right hint of playfulness, tongue firmly in cheek, we can really see it working for any brand looking to promote a specific – possibly new – product.


In today’s ads, we’re used to a certain amount of playfulness from our narrators. A knowing verbal wink that uses irony, self-awareness and a healthy, everyman perspective to get us on side. Not in the 80s. No chance. Narration back then was authoritative, dramatic and delivered with the utter seriousness of a Shakespearean tragedy. You needed to buy this product. Your life depended on it. And boy, is it enjoyable…[Link to ad]

How we’d use it today

What we found really fun about this technique was the juxtaposition: the more trivial the project, the more humour this deadly serious delivery can evoke. So, if your product is great, but it’s not perhaps the most crucial thing in the world, that’s when this kind of narration would go down a treat.


And as if the narration style isn’t enough, it’s backed up on numerous occasions by whispered echoes, delivered by a chorus of…um…backing narrators? We suppose that’s what you’d call them. The aim here is presumably to build up a sense of mystery, hinting toward a pre-existing secret world that can only be discovered by the purchase of (insert product here). Back in the day, we’re sure it did just that. Nowadays, though, it’s just very, very funny…

How we’d use it today

As with trope 2, this one’s all about the juxtaposition. The more trivial the product, the more seriously you should think about sneaking a few timely echoes in. 


Digital Radish Trope 02

You can’t have a futuristic 80s ad without a good grid. You know the ones we mean. Those green and black blueprint grids that were all the rage back in the day. In advertising, they were everywhere. We suppose this must be something to do with the rise of the personal computer, but it is alarming how many of these adverts seem to revert to grids at seemingly any opportunity. Car ad? Slap a grid in there. Razors? Grid. Peanuts? Yeah, why not – get yourself a grid! 

In true sci-fi style, we’ve managed to boil the 80s’ relationship with grids down to one very useful equation: Grids > No grids. 

How we’d use it today

Thematically, we’d say. If you’ve got a great campaign idea that uses that retrofuturistic, 80s aesthetic, get some grids in there!


Digital Radish Trope Retro

A similar approach is taken to lasers. As common as the sky above us and the soil at our feet, as the very air we breathe, there’s lasers. Whizzing past our heads in all their illustrated, animated glory. Seriously, how did people in the 80s manage to get anything done with so many lasers flying around?

How we’d use it today

One of the most enjoyable things we found with the abundant use of lasers was the fact that they were rarely acknowledged. They’d fly past people’s ears, through windows, out of their hands even and they’d be none the wiser. So why not go the other way? It’s weird that lasers are flying about all the time, and an ad that acknowledges this could be ripe for humour.


And when we can’t see lasers, chances are we’ll hear them. Pew-pewing their way around the universe, doing their bit to help ambitious brands gain extra street-cred (is that the word? Galaxy-cred, maybe?) with their audience since 1980. 

How we’d use it today

Anywhere. Literally anywhere. Honestly – what can’t be improved with the addition of laser noises?


The music used within futuristic 80s adverts is as varied as it is excellent. From ominous, synth-fueled soundscapes to disco-influenced jingles that boast alarmingly impressive production value, it’s clear that the 80s was a high-point for in-ad music. 

How we’d use it today

This point speaks to the merits of the original score. Why pay for the rights to a pop song that’s been used a thousand times when you can create something instead?


Digital Radish Trope 01

Throughout many of these adverts, we began to notice the way the models were moving. They took on angular, dramatic poses, regularly turning sharply toward the camera with a look of absolute seriousness. While we can only conjecture as to the point of this, we took it as an implication that perhaps these particular models were not human at all, but robots. Baffling? Sure. But we wouldn’t have it any other way…

How we’d use it today



Trope 8

You’ve reached the end of the ad. You’ve dodged lasers, circumvented grids and been swept dramatically through the story by a narrator of such gravitas that your legs are shaking. You’re exhilarated, inspired and well-and-truly ready to get your hands on whatever it is that’s being sold to you. But which brand was responsible for this incredible slice of futurism? If you’re at all in doubt (which, knowing 80s ads, you’re probably not) then here comes the end roll, taken straight out of the Star Wars handbook. The background is black (possibly with stars), the logo is neon and it’s glinting with the sheen of recently polished silverware. Beautiful. Does life get any better than this? Not in 2020, it doesn’t.

How we’d use it today

At the centre of your retrofuturistic campaign, of course! This look is pure 80s, and while that may be in the past, just remember: the 80s was the decade that lived in the future.

And that’s that.

8 tropes from the fantastically futuristic 80s ads of the past. There’s tonnes of them on YouTube, and we’d recommend giving them a search for a bit of fun one afternoon.

But it’s not just for fun. This kind of nostalgia has its uses in the marketing world. By using these tropes within your campaigns – whether they’re videos like the above, branding work or anything else – you’re reaching out to your target. Meeting them at a place where they feel familiar, happy, and ready for adventure. Worth a try, don’t you think?

If you liked what you read, we’re full of ideas. Get in touch with us at for some tailored advice.