Three “Futuristic” Marketing Guesses that Back To the Future II Got Right

It’s not a hoax. This one’s for real.

When Marty McFly travels into the future from 1985, he lands in the Hill Valley (California) at 4:29 PM PST, October 21st, 2015. Today’s the day, my friends.

From Gawker, to Vanity Fair, to The Guardian, there have been loads of “what did they get right/wrong” articles (which are secretly “why don’t I have a hover board, a flying car, and auto-lace Nikes?” stories). On this auspicious date, we thought we’d look at the world of marketing in this futuristic land of 2015.



Three things stand out.

1. The Evolution of the Newspaper Industry

The featured newspaper in Back to the Future II is USA Today.  It was a good choice.  In 1985, USA Today became the second largest newspaper in the United States, with a readership of 1.4M. Depending on what numbers you look at, USA Today is currently the number one paper in the States and now has between 1.6M and 1.8M print readers, and another 1.4M digital readers




The cover price increased from $0.35 to $0.50 in 1985.  It currently runs for a cool $2, but the BTTF2 cover was priced at $5.

The big difference between now and then (other than – and because of – the advent of the internet) is the advertising revenue.  According to the Newspaper Association of America, US papers generated up to 4 times more ad revenue in 1985 than they do today (before being adjusted for inflation).   While digital sales are increasing, it only represents 12% of newspaper revenue – and doesn’t nearly make up for the decline in readership and print advertising revenue. The paper featured in the movie had no visible ads on it – so maybe they had seen the future.


graph 1 newspaper revenue


Back to the Future II also had it right that there would be instantaneously updatable moving video in newspaper (which look much like a .gif), but they had the medium wrong.  And, the featured story of Queen Diana’s impending visit to Washington is sad …


2. Digital Billboards

In the movie’s 2015, digital billboards abound in downtown Hill Valley. Promoting Jaws 19 and hover upgrades for earth-bound cars – they had the content pretty close to correct. The most common advertisers in out-of-home today are quick service, entertainment, Telco and soft drinks.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America estimates that OOH represents 5.1% of all media spend in the US.  In fictional, futuristic Hill Valley, it looks way higher (even if you include product placement, which was almost comically overt in the trilogy).


Digital boards in the real world are great.  There’s no hard production required.  They’re easily uploaded which can lead to shorter timelines.


Here’s the catch…lots of cities don’t allow them because they’re a distraction.


The holographic attacking shark would probably not get municipal approval in Halifax or Toronto…Low-fi 3D and ambient out-of-home on the other hand are some of the best uses of the medium and high-tech digital 3D boards are definitely on the horizon, whether regulations are ready for them or not.




3. Disappointing Amount of Product Innovation with Major Brands

While they sometimes make an effort (and there are exceptions), big consumer brands are generally not great innovators.  In the futuristic 2015, Marty deals with ‘modern’ packaging for Pepsi and new distribution techniques for Pizza Hut, but the product inside the packaging had not changed. Again – that’s about right. In 2014, 9% of Pepsi Co’s revenues came from product innovation, but most of their growth comes from acquisition of new brands.

It’s much easier for big brands to buy new upstarts to (optimistically) better serve their customers or (pessimistically) stifle competition.

Many of the products that the kids in us really wish had happened (hover boardsintelligent clothing, and flying cars) haven’t come to market yet. The important products like personal communications tools, video conferencing, and keyless locks are all here and considered ho-hum today.  Let’s be honest: if we’d seen Skype in 1985, we’d have lost our minds.

Some of the featured brands are capitalizing on cache of the BTTF2 mention, with Pepsi Perfect and Nike’s auto-lacing shoes. They’d be nuts not to.


Hats Off to Back to the Future II.

Given what they knew, Marty’s visit to 2015 made some pretty impressive guesses. Sure, I’d love a personal Mr. Fusion to power my house off of my food waste. But if we had to guess what we’d find in 2045, not only would it be hard to be as accurate, it might be hard to be as optimistic.


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