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Marketing lessons from the Wrath of Khan

We come on the 40th anniversary of the film Wrath of Khan in a time of strife and change. Yet, the classic film that saved the Star Trek enterprise seems as relevant today as it did back when it first premiered on screens.

Back in 1982 the Wrath of Khan was a new beginning. Following the visually stunning but plot-lacking Star Trek the Motion Picture, the Wrath of Khan was the only hope of saving the 1960s space-western. Not only did it hit the mark, it surpassed expectations and became one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.

But the themes and conflicts of this film rang true in the 1980s and still speak to us today as we struggle with a whole new host of issues.

As we face political instability, a pandemic and rising hatred and intolerance, Wrath of Khan’s lesson on marketing and society speaks to how to communicate in a new age.

In a time of loss, change and questions, we have to believe Kirk when he says that there is no such thing as a no-win scenario.

For me the themes of loss and rebirth, Wrath of Khan teaches us not to fear the unknown, but to go into it following the things we know. The lesson is clear: Had Kirk not skipped Starfleet regs when he first encountered Khan, the film would have been very short. For all things in life, there is a first time. We need to keep our mind open, but follow our instincts. To beat the no win “Kobayashi Maru” test, Kirk changes the rules and cheats-reprogramming the simulation so it is possible to rescue the ship. “So, you’ve never faced that situation? Faced death?” A young officer asks him. “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” Kirk replies. Pure Kirk; don’t give up — find a way forward.

Khan cannot release his hatred or wish for revenge — and that obsession proves to be quite destructive. Today we see this too as so many people deceive themselves into believing lies, and being obsessed with a big falsehood. But the road to be better would remain the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one. Wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, doing what helps everyone, not just yourself.

So many Americans just want to go back to 2018, forget the pandemic and live as if nothing had happened — that comes at a tremendous cost. As we see Kirk struggling with a promotion that prevents him from commanding a starship, he is vulnerable and not ready for a deadly challenge when Khan lures him into a deadly trap. Instead of focusing on what needs to be done, he allows himself to look at what was.

At the film’s end the playing of Amazing Grace is sure to bring tears to any eye, and juxtaposed the loss of the film, and the hope of a better future. The film recast the whole Star Trek franchise — and although the films that followed would be of a lesser value, it revived the series as relevant and human.

The journey Kirk finds himself on is harsh. He finds a lost son, sees his ship almost destroyed, must see his best friend perish, and makes huge sacrifices to win a no-win scenario. He emerges, scared and regretful — but alive.

As we would learn in the next films, Kirk did what he had to do, what he always did. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.


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