A future of looking back

Every generation has its nostalgia, that sentimental longing for iconic moments in the past. Yet, when a culture is stressed, depressed, discontent and riddled with pessimism, the appeal and psychological uses of nostalgia are intensified. Entering 2015, we expect to see nostalgic yearnings come to the forefront in cultures around the word, with “new” retro products, attitudes and packaged memories from marketers and politicians alike.

Indeed, in early November 2014, perhaps the most talked-about viral video among the 18-to- 34 age group was a production steeped in aspects of 1980s and 1990s television. “Too Many Cooks,” called “an instant cult classic” by Rolling Stone, showed that in times of global and national strife, with consumers bombarded by a constant flow of multimedia information, there’s always a need for a mindless journey into the past — especially when it’s mordantly funny.

Social psychologist Dr. Clay Routledge, a leading researcher in the new science of nostalgia, believes it to be a common and fundamental human experience that serves a range of significant psychological functions. For a decade, he and his colleagues have conducted surveys and controlled experiments aimed at discovering what characterizes the experience of nostalgia, the positive or negative effects nostalgia has on people, and the triggers of nostalgic reverie.

Routledge’s work shows that nostalgic memories are generally focused on personally meaningful life events involving “close others” — friends, family or romantic partners. As you might imagine, the sort of experiences invoked include family vacations, road trips with friends, weddings, graduations, birthday parties and holiday gatherings. Almost by definition, nostalgic memories are happy memories.

Nostalgia, then, tends to increase positive emotions, and even induces a good mood. Among the effects of nostalgia reported in Routledge’s findings are increased self-esteem; the feeling that life is full of meaning and purpose; and an increased sense of social connectedness and belonging.

Routledge’s most recent studies indicate that nostalgia reduces stress and may make people feel energized, inspired and optimistic about the future.

Nostalgia, as Routledge explains it, is powerful; it’s only logical people find themselves turning to nostalgia at times when their positive mood is threatened, their sense of life’s meaning is destabilized, or their sense of social connectedness is undermined.

A study Routledge recounts assigned participants to read one of three news articles chosen to induce positive mood, negative mood or no emotion. They then completed a questionnaire gauging how nostalgic they’d felt at that moment. Participants who read the article inducing a negative mood reported feeling more nostalgic than participants who read either the positive or neutral mood-inducing articles.

Enter the marketers

Nostalgia has been recognized as a powerful business tool, especially today, as pessimism reigns over the global economy and a geo-political war on terror encompasses much of the world. Of course, there is nothing new about nostalgia marketing. Its history as a tool for advertisers stretches back well more than a century. In 1877, Quaker Oats registered the first trademark in breakfast cereal, taking as its logo a man dressed in traditional Quaker garb and holding a scroll with the word “Pure.” In a 1909 campaign, Quaker Oats used the words of Quaker philosopher and entrepreneur William Penn: “To this day, and from the beginning, our firm could look that honest Quaker, William Penn, in the eye and say we have never sent a false, a misrepresented, a stale or a moldy package from our door,” the ad reads. “We will keep faith with you as the Quakers of old kept faith with the Red Men.”

Quaker principles weren’t especially in vogue from the 1880s to the 1910s, yet Quaker Oats’ bold marketing strategy — focused on purity, sanctity and a return to wholesome Quaker values — proved highly successful during a period of fierce industrialization and American expansion. At the time, this approach wasn’t recognized as an appeal to nostalgia.

By the mid- to late 20th century, advertisers were making heavy use of nostalgia marketing and the entertainment industry was counting on nostalgia to draw crowds. An example was the July 2000 BBC broadcast of the first of 10 episodes of a miniseries, “I Love the 70s.” With one program covering each year, the show detailed British pop-culture events and major music, television, movies and fads of the decade. The miniseries success spurred the BBC to produce “I Love the 80s” in 2001; one year later, VH-1 adapted “I Love the 80s” for American audiences.

The American version profiled video games like Mattel Electronic Football and Pac-Man, and music fads like Rick Springfield and Debbie Gibson. Of course, it failed to mention the high crime rates of the early 1980s, the increase of Cold War spending, the AIDS crisis and American foreign policy directly contributing to the growth of turmoil in Arab nations. The show gave viewers an optimistic and entertaining glance at the 1980s. The success of the VH-1 series, and subsequent series remembering the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s, suggest that Americans, more than ever, craved lighthearted entertainment benefiting from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

Why did these early blasts of nostalgia entertainment succeed? Well, when “I Love the 80s” premiered, America was still reeling from the effects of 9/11 and gearing up for  ew wars in the Middle East. Now, with the War on Terror going global and economies in distress, the overall mood among the masses is both sluggish and sour. In such a setting, this is the perfect time for nostalgia to take hold. On-trend advertisers and marketers will produce products and pitch messages to reflect nostalgia’s deep-seated daydreams and its yearning to return to a time when life was simple and the world’s ills were merely tall tales, heard from a safe distance.

Nostalgia’s appeal is cyclical. During times of economic or world strife, nostalgia’s pull is strongest. Americans embraced elements of the 1950s and early 1960s via “American Graffiti,” “Grease” and the television show “Happy Days” during the era of Vietnam and Watergate. In the 1980s, Americans turned back to the radical days of the 1960s — think the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire” — as Cold War politics heated up.

During fleeting periods of relative calm and economic optimism, such as the late 1980s and late 1990s, Americans dial down their nostalgia trip. Family-oriented television series become popular; adult contemporary pop charts high among American listening audiences. When conditions are relatively good and the mood is optimistic, people comfortably live in the present.

It’s likely that digital technology has brought us an unparalleled age of 24/7 stressors. Social media turns every personal moment into an instant public display; news feeds keep the pressure up regarding every far-flung crisis or disaster. We witness friends’ and family members’ lives in real time on Facebook and Instagram; we’re inundated with the latest news, opinion and chatter on Twitter. And we carry it all around on our smartphones, which seem to never stop distracting and alerting us. With this technological noise, there is pessimism about the world’s current state, spiced by a slowly recovering economy, a rash of gun violence and expansion of global terrorism. These all make the appeal of nostalgia in 2015 likely to hit new heights.

Multi-tier approach to revising the past


In the last five years, some of the largest tastemakers have altered marketing campaigns to release products that spark consumer nostalgia. Pepsi launched its “Throwback” line of soft drinks, which included old-style packaging and a change in flavor derived from real sugar. It has since been rebranded to “Made wit
h Real Sugar.” Miller Lite, in September 2014, rebranded its cans with a white-label design that harkens back to the 1980s. Clothing manufacturer Iconix is manufacturing old-style Starter jackets — satin coats with embroidered sports logos that were popular in the 1980s and ’90s. Today’s fashion includes a comeback for high-waisted jeans, popular in the 1970s and ’80s; overalls, which peaked in the early 1990s; and skinny ties, which men wore prominently in the 1980s. Even former advertising characters, like 9Lives cat food’s Morris the Cat, are being disinterred, this time in viral Internet videos and smartphone apps.

While consumers have depended on nostalgia as a balance against rapid-fire technology’s stresses, advertisers have leveraged that technology to enhance consumers’ sense of nostalgia. This, in fact, may be the defining aspect of the current nostalgia trend. Favorite television moments, old songs and movies can easily be accessed through a number of platforms. Cable television networks, through a combination of tiny budgets, a lack of originality and marketing savvy, have funneled old shows into syndication and have brought back numerous old stars for reality programming. Social media is involved as well: 5 million people now use the Facebook-hosted app Timehop, which pulls from users’ social media feeds to repost what they did one, two, three and five years ago. It calls itself “a daily nostalgia kick.”

And if you need a late-night hit of nostalgia, Jimmy Fallon, one of America’s cultural tastemakers, has enthusiastically embraced it on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Focusing intensely on his target audience of 18- to 35-year-olds, Fallon has featured re-creations of the television sitcom “Full House.” He performs hip-hop hits and famous dances with celebrities. He plays lip-sync contests with guests over popular 1980s and ’90s songs. You can bet that at least once a week, Fallon will incorporate nostalgia into his show, spraying the magic dust of childhood over his audience. And because of his success in utilizing nostalgia, other hosts have taken note. Jimmy Kimmel re-created the entire “Friends” main set and attempted to “live” in the series while interviewing Jennifer Aniston.

These days, nostalgia seems to be everywhere. And with technologically savvy millennials now advertisers’ most sought-after audience, we’re seeing an abundance of nostalgia for the early and mid-1990s.

That brings us back to the video “Too Many Cooks,” which premiered early on an October morning on Comedy Central. It begins as a 1990s sitcom theme song — establishing shots; characters engaged in some inane function before stopping, staring at the camera and smiling; funky yellow title cards; and cheeky, optimistic theme music — before it skewers the genre in violence. The nostalgia continues with parodies of the 1980s “G.I. Joe” cartoon series, the multiple 1980s and ’90s “Star Trek” series, procedural dramas like “Law & Order,” 1980s soap operas like “Falcon Crest” and sitcoms like “Small Wonder,” “Roseanne” and “Alf” — all distinct points of memory for the millennial generation. “Too Many Cooks” became a viral smash within one week, notching more than 3 million views after 10 days on YouTube.

“Too Many Cooks” is sure to influence marketers to take greater advantage of old television habits. You may see “Too Many Cooks” Halloween costumes in 2015, merchandise related to the video in gift shops, and a renewed interest in the media that influenced it. New technologies and platforms have opened advertising options for advertisers to seek audiences; don’t be surprised to see advertisers take full advantage of opportunities to find new points of memory for consumers born in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These trend lines demonstrate a return only to the recent past with no real capacity to drive broad-based cultural transformation. That potential remains strong but untapped. The gold lies in a deeper reach to retrofit elements of the past into more meaningful, lasting change — change that drives and defines a generation (see “Retrofitting the past,” page 24).

Skip to content