Niloufar Javadi explores the increasing use of nostalgia as a marketing strategy.
Psychologically speaking, nostalgia can be loosely defined as a yearning for the past, which brings about both joy and sadness. Today it is mostly applied to cherished childhood memories that are making a comeback as cinematic sequels, and apps like Pokemon Go. The reason behind this boom is that marketing managers have realised, long before psychologists have set out to define it, that nostalgia sells.
Despite the occasional article criticising the un-productivity of this intellectual recycling, there is no denying that nostalgia is revolutionising advertisement and marketing. The first, biggest and only have lost their appeal. Instead, our products will walk you into the warm, open embrace of the familiar, with a complete guarantee that you will enjoy it…for a second time.
Somehow, we still pay to watch the new Beauty and the Beast movie just to feel the warm rush of endorphins at jokes that only make sense if you’ve already seen the original. Even if we could feel the magic of a new movie instead of fruitlessly searching for it in a pale copy, nostalgia is extremely alluring: the reassuring feeling of replaying a happy memory is too tempting.
Although now it is mostly used in the ongoing discourse about the un-turning wheel of human creativity, nostalgia is by no means a modern concept. The term was originally coined by a 17th century Swiss army doctor to describe the Swiss soldiers’ severe longing for home during the country’s civil war, and the depression-like symptoms that followed it. Although still understood in terms of its depressive symptoms, nostalgia is no longer considered a disease, more like an irrational sentiment that is best to avoid.
After all, nostalgia halts creativity and it clearly distorts memories. I might feel nostalgic at the thought of my time at high school and think about how much simpler life and friendships were back then. But if I were to actually go back to those days for a week or two, I would promptly be reminded that the themes that most predominantly defined my high school experience were anxiety, confusion about the future and self-doubt.
But what is nostalgia at its very core? Despite its irrationality, what makes us reach for our wallets at the sight of a name or face from our childhood? Clearly, nostalgia works as a marketing technique because it inspires a certain degree of care and loyalty, but why are we so much more eager to reaffirm the old instead of embracing the new?
Psychologists have wondered for years. The volume of research centred on nostalgia and its mental function in recent decades is quite surprising. Despite its negative reputation, research shows that nostalgia plays an important role in mental health. Now considered a means of establishing identity and social belonging through shared experiences, psychologists understand nostalgia as a way of reducing stress and restoring social wellbeing, as it creates a sense of continuity and reminds us of our roots.
Nostalgia also helps construct a narrative of our lives, make sense of our past and increase our confidence when facing an uncertain future. Many disciplines of social sciences acknowledge that personal identity is closely tied to memory, so perhaps it is natural that we seek orientation from our past. Even a past that we do not personally remember can play a role in shaping who we are because it exists in collective memory.
Despite its benefits, the question remains: how will a society so dependent on the past for self-definition ever move forward? Indeed, at first glance, it might seem as though our society’s refusal to move on is becoming problematic: extreme nostalgia for a supposed ‘golden age’ has given rise to ultra-nationalism and its treacherous byproducts. The creative well of the entertainment industry seems to have run dry as original stories and ideas grow increasingly rare. However, this take on nostalgia as a byproduct of meaningless modern life and descent into a Kafkaesque dystopia seems rather romanticised and, one might say, nostalgic…
A trip down the historical memory lane may offer some insight into our obsession with the glorified past. Philosopher Svetlana Boym points out that the appeal of nostalgia has been part of the human experience for a long time; in fact, nostalgia has influenced numerous historical events, particularly revolutions. For instance, classic Roman and Greek philosophies heavily influenced the ideological roots of the French revolution. This manifested in the appearance of Greek and Roman gods in revolutionary paintings and the iconic Phrygian caps, which were inspired by the attire of Roman slaves.
However, Boym argues that the French did not mindlessly imitate the classics, but borrowed certain aspects of their ideology to move forward and create a republic. She also notes that nostalgic sentiments seem to be strongest during times of radical change. In these instances, a glance to the past can help with orientation and moving forward. It is difficult to define ourselves within a disrupted narrative, but nostalgia can serve as a reminder of our roots and provide values from which we can begin to reconstruct both a self and a society.
Boym’s argument is still applicable to the 21st century context. This time, the revolution is digital and the radical change is constant. Each new gadget promises life changing advantages, and glaringly points out the unbearable flaws of our existence without it. The unprecedented accessibility of information, the elimination of time and spatial boundaries, coupled with increasingly globalised societies, have created unparalleled conditions. When the limitations that have defined human relations and social dynamics for centuries change, so do societies.
The digital revolution is perhaps equally as thrilling, fast paced and unpredictable as the French Revolution, if not more so. Not to mention that the digital age is consistently associated with impersonality and a lack of human contact. This impersonal nature of the digital revolution amplifies the need for nostalgia as a way to maintain identities through social ties during this radical shift.
How, then, does nostalgia enable progress in our revolutionised society? In terms of technology and marketing, the newest advances are interactive platforms which certain app developers have executed particularly well. For example, Niantic’s Pokemon Go is the perfect example of the blend of nostalgia and technological advancement, as it uses a well-known piece of entertainment to introduce and advertise a new technology while marketing it through nostalgia. Needless to say, their philosophy proved quite successful, if fleeting.
There are numerous similar examples in popular culture. Often, beyond well-known plots and characters, lie original and relevant concepts, which find their ways into the general discourse in familiar vehicles. One such example, and a personal favourite of mine, is 2016 hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which is based on the lives of founding fathers of the United States, a topic so romanticised that it perhaps resembles an epic more than a historical piece. However, through its creative use of musical style and a diverse cast, the musical poses debates that are incredibly relevant to the present political landscape of the United States.
In a way, nostalgia marketing is perhaps the only way to successfully launch a product or technology in an age where, as production and technological advancements take place so rapidly, there is barely any time for them to find a place in the consumers’ daily life on their own. Nostalgia marketing works because it addresses something deep within us. When a product appeals to a customer through nostalgia, it is actually asking them for a nod, confirming that they are part of bigger group, a group that experienced similar things which made them feel similar ways. It is a reminder that even though the past is gone, it is still very much ours, and I guess this is a reassuring feeling.