What's Driving Squid Game’s Success

Published 15 October 2021

Alex Hawkins

Since debuting less than four weeks ago, South Korean series Squid Game has become Netflix's biggest show ever, reaching 111 million viewers worldwide. The success of the drama, which tops the streaming service's charts in more than 80 countries, underscores South Korea's increasing influence on global popular culture. Here, we unpack three key takeaways.

What's Driving Squid Game’s Success

Appetite for Anti-capitalist Entertainment: In the show, people who are heavily in debt play deadly versions of children's games for the chance to win a cash prize. Beyond its eye-catching production design and costuming, the series appears to have struck a chord with global audiences as a commentary on class and capitalism. Its survivalist narrative has hit on themes from economic insecurity and inequality to costly housing and job scarcity – all concerns familiar to international viewers.

Cashing in on Cultural Impact: Squid Game has fast become a phenomenon with a clear trickle-down effect that is winning attention from brands. Searches for the all-white Vans slip-ons worn by characters have increased by 7,800% since its release, while global searches for retro-inspired tracksuits jumped by 97%, according to fashion database Lyst. Interest in dalgona candy – a South Korean sweet that features in the show – has also spiked, with TikTok jumping on the trend with a "Toffee Game" effect.

Netflix itself is making the most of the hype. As well as releasing Squid Game apparel through its own online shop, it is expanding its merch network via a partnership with Walmart, which has created a dedicated digital storefront for the streaming service.

The Globalisation of Storytelling: In February, Netflix announced plans to spend $500m this year alone on content produced in South Korea – a strategic move that appears to be paying off. Squid Game's breakthrough is now sparking a Korean media stock surge and driving new viewers to other East Asian series, such as Sweet Home and Alice in Borderland. Just as producing more international programming will be key to Netflix's continued growth, a more global approach to storytelling will be equally vital for other Western media companies.

For more, see Retail Meets Media and The Business of TV: New Engagement Tactics.