Is that steampunk in the air?

Everything old is new again, as recent campaigns from Cadbury and BMW pay subtle homage to the rise of machine manufacturing.

Occasionally, advertising captures a subculture in so subtle a way, it’s easy to not notice it even happened. Unlike a soft-drink company co-opting hip-hop culture – or that time swing dancing burbled up into the mainstream via the Gap – the reference is unintentional, or even reverential.
Lately, strategy has spotted several subtle ad references to steampunk, a cultish subculture that pays homage to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of machine manufacturing. It is everything digital is not – dirty, physically arduous, mechanical – but thanks to the seamlessness of CGI, the contradiction can become quite elegant.
Such is the case with Cadbury’s Caramilk Secrets promotion in December, a hit-and-run social media effort designed to build buzz for the launch of the new bite-sized candies this February. Very much steampunk-inspired, the Facebook-only campaign invited visitors to watch Caramilk bars be turned into bite-sized treats via an old fashioned-looking machine. Those who participated got a bag of the real thing mailed to them afterwards.
BMW brand Mini also made subtle reference to steampunk with its projection-based Vending Machine in downtown Toronto. The animated projection featured a traditional vending machine filled with different-coloured Minis. Passersby could activate the machine by texting a model-specific code (e.g. ‘B2′ for a yellow Mini) to a shortcode, and then watch as the vending machine delivered the selected Mini. Sure, vending machines aren’t steam-powered, but the all-but whirring cogs behind the scenes were a nice reference to pre-computerized machination.


The genre is set to go Hollywood once again – remember Wild West? – with the release of new Terry Gilliam project, 1884. The animated film will be set in a fantastic version of 1884 Europe, featuring a cast of characters striving to make a film with steam power. Gilliam’s Brazil stuck with us for longer than we’d care to linger on – hello, lobotomy! – so here’s hoping antiquated flying cars and steam-powered antics make for lighter fare.