In our summer series on nostalgia in marketing, we’ve written a lot about what people are interested in. As our official amateur/armchair behavioral economist, I want to dig into the “why” of this trend.
Nostalgia was once considered a disorder. It's the feeling generated by thinking about the past and ruminating on the better aspects. One (and many psychologists) could argue that it's a form of escapism, or a way to express dissatisfaction with the current state. In its simplest explanation, nostalgia is a favorable comparison of the past.
Why is this working right now? Is everyone dissatisfied with the current state of society? Or is it that we have more digital access to the most recent generations, and even further back, so instead of biking to the library and looking through microfiche to get your dose of the good old days, you can just google it. And share it. And then all your friends agree with it, which gives you that little brain jolt in your amygdala... and... oh sorry. Let’s keep this out of the weeds.
There is a A LOT of work being done on the psychology of happiness. “How to be happy” is a search term that consistently ranks in all its variations. As a parent, I'm tempted to point to the screens that we all bow our heads to. (They're making us literally grow horns in our necks!) But that’s not the point. Collectively, our society keeps pointing back, with fondness, to a slower and simpler time.
When our cycle of distressing news is at a dizzying pace, when people are suffering from higher rates of depression and anxiety (thanks in part to our digital lives), and when the loudest voices in society are at increasingly disparate ends of the spectrum, it stands to reason that comfort will be sought, and the boom in nostalgic content is a symptom of our growing discomfort as a society.
Looking Forward to the Past
Marketing is the applied practice of understanding motivation and need, and connecting it with a product or service. In the best of campaigns, evoking emotion is one of the most successful avenues to engagement. Pop culture gives us the opportunity to make these connections to the past, and find the opportunities for promotion.
Nostalgia as a phenomenon isn’t new. We all sat through our grandparents' fond recollections of their childhoods, bored to tears and (back in the pre-device days) with no digital distraction in our hands to escape it. As humans, we are inclined to distrust the new and cling to the past, because it has proven results. The future comes with no guarantees and that is of little comfort to most.
Pass the re-runs, the New Coke and the Rubiks Cube, please.
Jen puts the "Jen" in Gen X, falling squarely in the middle of that generation of latchkey kids and questionable fashion. She's old enough that her baby pictures are either in black or white or faded Kodacolor, which is now a desirable look on Instagram. But you don't need a filter to make her childhood look vintage—it already is.
Jen looks back longingly on all the excuses she used to stay over at her best friend's house so they could stay up to watch Saturday Night Live, even though she didn't get most of the political jokes until she was in college. She once tried to change her name to Rio, and was convinced that Simon LeBon would fall in love with her if they could just somehow meet.