Harnessing Nostalgia


By Bill Tressler

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Coupon Maven – Michelle Roy.

The columnist Doug Larson once said, “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.” Never has this quote seemed more poignant than now, in the age of Throwback Thursday and social media timelines. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, brought about by a longing for simpler times, part sentimentality and part regret. It’s a tool by which we’re transported back in time, and it brings up a myriad of feelings, mostly a yearning for the pleasures of our past.

This sensation has long been more than just a topic of conversation between friends, however. For years, nostalgia has been used as a tool by advertisers to market products to the more sentimental among us. From Coca Cola’s resurrection of Surge soda, to Hot Topic’s restocking of Underoos, Millennials love all things nostalgic, and big brands are keenly aware of that fact.

You need to only read a few BuzzFeed listicles to realize that Millennials–the generation of people aged 18 to 34–are hugely reminiscent of their childhoods, namely the ’80s and ’90s. “The 26 Most Awesome Happy Meal Toys Of The ’90s”, “48 Pictures That Perfectly Capture The ’90s”, and “’90s TV Shows With The Coolest Bedrooms” are just a sliver of the huge selection of ’90s themed articles featured on the site. Though it offers plenty of other content, BuzzFeed’s nostalgia themed articles are massively popular.

While perhaps a bit redundant or obvious in its ploy to appeal to nostalgia, it’s a smart business plan. With social media as prevalent as it is today, it’s not hard to see what Millennials are interested in. Many people have filled out personalized information on their profiles, listing each of their favorite Nickelodeon shows, boy bands of yesteryear, and discontinued products. With individuals broadcasting their very specific tastes to anyone with Facebook access, it’s never been easier for brands to market new and old products to consumers.

If that isn’t reason enough for brands to target the demographic, then the fact that Millennials currently account for 21 percent (or $1.3 trillion) of annual consumer spending most certainly is. Accounting for roughly a quarter of the population, the economic power of Millennials cannot be ignored.

In an attempt to court this powerful demographic, brands are trying to innovate their business models and advertising strategies. Companies like Dollar Shave Club and Amazon are foregoing traditional advertising techniques in favor of more unique approaches.

Dollar Shave Club advertises via irreverent, comedic television commercials and ads on popular podcasts, and features an at-home delivery service that is remarkably cheap. They’re changing the way companies appeal and sell to their consumers in a way that is new and exciting, making them very attractive to Millennials.

Simply put, big brands are being forced to adapt to the times and appeal to the younger generations, or else be left behind entirely. While this means coming up with new products and strategies, it also means bringing back old products and practices that Millennials seem to pine for. For example, Pepsi made the move to launch Pepsi Throwback, a soda made with real sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup, in response to a demand from Millennials for a nostalgic product that also features natural ingredients. Urban Outfitters also jumped on the nostalgic bandwagon when they reintroduced limited edition Lisa Frank stationary, a brand that was hugely popular with young girls in the ’90s.

Photo courtesy of Alan / Falcon.

While many Millennials are certainly thrilled about the return of Lisa Frank notepads or Pepsi’s beet sugar soda, one must ask themselves whether this susceptibility to nostalgia is a weakness. After all, Pepsi and Urban Outfitters aren’t bringing back old products out of the kindness of their hearts; they’re huge corporations and the number one goal of huge corporations is to make a profit. They have to adapt to the demands of their consumers in order to do so, and it just so happens that nostalgia-inducing ad campaigns and products are currently what it takes to sway Millennial consumers in their favor.

This is not to say that all corporations are evil entities devoid of decency, but it does feel as if Millennials are playing into the hands of big advertisers. Sure, it’s a fair enough exchange: Millennials give companies their hard-earned cash and the companies in turn deliver a product that is in high demand. However, something about appealing to people’s childhoods to sell every product just feels disingenuous. It’s difficult to not feel pandered to when Honda is using stop-motion animation sketches featuring Skeletor and Barbie to sell the new CR-V.

This increased focus on nostalgia is not necessarily a bad thing, however. While it may lead to the return of some not-so-savory products (looking at you, Surge), it has also resurrected some great things. Lavar Burton, the host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow, started a Kickstarter campaign to bring the show back in a web format after its 2009 cancellation. Within hours of the project’s launch, Burton hit, and then exceeded, his one million dollar goal.

Nostalgia is a cruel mistress in this way: sometimes it heralds the return of a prolific educational children’s program, and sometimes it resurrects a terrible citrus soda. Life is funny like that.

For better or for worse, nostalgia is a basic part of our human psyche, one that cannot be dismissed or simply overlooked. It conjures up powerful emotions and can lead to movements among huge swaths of people and innovation among antiquated corporations. It’s a fact of life that will forever be entwined with our social, financial, and political lives. As long as there are people on this Earth, there will always be those who yearn for earlier times, and there will always be those who are ready to fulfill that desire.