What do advertising technology and the much-loved futuristic cartoon Futurama have in common? At first glance, not much, but when you think about marketing in the Futurama world, there’s an uncanny similarity between the advertisements of the future and now. But rather than just having ads that follow you online and track your movements around town via smartphone, Futurama takes it to the next logical step: ads that are inserted into your dreams while you sleep.

In an episode from the first season, “A Fishfull of Dollars,” Futurama’s main character, Fry, a 20th century transplant in the year 3000, experiences an ad while having a nightmare — he’s forgotten to study for a test and he’s arrived to the classroom in his underwear. Here’s how it plays out in Fry’s dream:

Teacher: Mister Fry, are those your underpants? [Fry looks down and sees he is wearing only his briefs. He stands up and the whole class laughs and points. He gasps.] Young man, I think it’s time you learned a lesson about Lightspeed brand briefs.[She pulls down a poster showing the briefs.]

Announcer: [voice-over] Lightspeed fits today’s active lifestyle. Whether you’re on the job … [Fry suddenly appears in a company meeting wearing just Lightspeeds.] … or having fun. [He sits with a woman on a bed.] Lightspeed briefs, style and comfort for the discriminating crotch.

Talk about experiential advertising. Fry first sees this ‘native advertisement’ inserted into a dream, is temporarily upset about it the next day, and then decides he needs to buy the briefs at the mall.

Futurama advertising

In our less advanced day and age, marketers are still trying to figure out how to insert themselves without invading a consumer’s privacy. Marketers know they need to be genuine and conversational while being relevant, but often struggle with an artful way to do so.

However, another aspect of Futurama might hold some clues as to what would work with consumers. Creator Matt Groening and co-developer David X. Cohen know their target audience of sci-fi fans so well that they’ve created a series of fun, intentional inside jokes left for viewers to discover.

For example, in several episodes Bender speaks words entirely in binary code. While an ordinary person might understand the jest at a basic level, a tech-savvy fan of Futurama and might spend extra time deciphering the binary code, becoming “in” on it when he or she finds out what it means.

Another example is the ‘Futurama Theorem,’ which Cohen developed with Futurama writer and applied math PhD Ken Keeler. Keeler essentially wrote an entire proof for a scene in the animation that can be worked on and enjoyed by math geeks — and isn’t just a random string of gibberish made to look like math.

According to Cohen, these jokes, which weren’t supposed to be for the audience at all, ended up creating a sensation among math nerds everywhere.

“There was an opportunity to put in jokes in the background of the animation screens that very few people were going to get,” Cohen mentions in an interview with Wired. “Very few people would try that in a calculator and get the joke. But the people that did were amazed that it was so obscure and so tailored for them. And they become a fan for life after that. It isn’t the hugest audience, but it is the audience that saved our neck when we were cancelled.” By including these personalized bits and understanding what resonated with the audience, the Futurama writers created a devoted following.

With the book debut of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh, which includes several chapters on Furutrama, Cohen explains that audience has become even bigger — now, everyone wants to be in on the joke.