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Why Nostalgia Is Such An Important Emotion To Online Advertisers

‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be’ goes the old joke, but is that actually true? Since the 17th Century, when Johannes Hofer first diagnosed the newly-coined term ‘nostalgia’ as a neurological disease common in Swiss mercenaries, our perception of the condition has changed a little.

These days you’re more likely to find overt nods to nostalgia in the world around you. Whether it’s Instagram filters aping Polaroid style, Shoreditch cereal cafes, or Hollywood producing not one but two Ghostbusters reboots, relics of millennial youth are popping up all around us. The past may be a foreign country, but that doesn’t mean people have stopped visiting.

Brands have noticed this too. While BuzzFeed rose to prominence sentimentalising 80s and 90s youth culture in list form, the world’s largest companies have eagerly indulged our overactive sense of nostalgia.

To launch the PlayStation 4, Sony encouraged users to share rose-tinted anecdotes about Crash Bandicoot and cracked discs via the hashtag #playstationmemories. The ensuing ‘oral history’ was compiled into a highly-shared video campaign, bursting with 90s detail. Microsoft’s ‘Child Of The ’90’s‘ took a similar route to even greater effect, positing Internet Explorer as a kind lifetime companion, at your side for all the Furbies and pump-up Reeboks.

So are we witnessing the steady Boyhood-ization of online advertising?

Well, of course, the fact that people like to reminisce about the ‘good old days’ is nothing new.  After all, even Plato was fond of lamenting for the old days, but millennials seem particularly attuned to this kind of thinking.

And with millennials making up 25% of the U.S. population, it’s important for brands to know why this is. Academic studies into nostalgia-based advertising have demonstrated that marketing which displays ‘wistfulness for the past’ produces a sense of social-connectedness, and by extension, invites consumers to part with money more easily. The Brand Power Index, which ranks brands according to social media buzz and online searches, has found correlations between nostalgia branding and boosts in online interest. For example, Jack Daniel’s rose-tinted ‘Legend’ campaign received an impressive 27% uptick from the BPI.

The first theory is structural, and taps into this notion of social connection. Some commentators claim that growing up in the nebula of BuzzFeed, streaming content and, most importantly, social media has made millennials hyper-actively self-aware. Though all generations romanticise their youth, millennials have been given far more powerful tools to express and share that nostalgia. The result is spontaneous Twitter campaigns, remix culture and ‘Too Many Cooks‘. Given this outpouring of interest, it’s only natural major brands would respond in kind. Thus, Disney revives the Star Wars franchise, the Pixies are touring again and Salt N’ Pepa star in a GEICO ad.

The other theory is more political in nature. Some experts argue that since millennials grew up in a period of economic prosperity only to graduate into adulthood in the midst of a global  recession, suggesting that reflecting warmly on the culture of the 90s has an economic element to it.

In any case, all these theories (and there are plenty more) try to account for the fact that marketing which reflects this ‘better times’ mentality is producing highly shareable content.

The psychology of nostalgia is its own fascinating tangle of fluorescent shoelaces and Yo-Yo strings. While we associate public nostalgia with comic book conventions or shared passions, private nostalgia is actually a rather lonely affair. Studies show that humans typically feel most nostalgic at times of sadness, suggesting a kind of natural defence mechanism for the blues. Faced with bleak times, we naturally reflect on better ones and the resulting afterglow acts as a pick-me-up. This process is vital to understanding the value of nostalgia in advertising, which, at its most effective, can produced a bite-sized version of that sensation.

Unruly’s own Science of Sharing emphasizes the power of emotional engagement in online advertising, especially when clickthroughs and impressions are becoming increasingly fuzzy metrics. Those emotions may be shock, surprise, disgust, or warmth; but the general rule is that ads which engender positive feeling in the viewer and far more likely to be shared than those which produce negative feeling.

With this is in mind, nostalgia’s importance as a marketing tool comes clearly into view. Ads like ‘Child Of The 90’s’ prove so successful because they create warm, sentimental feelings in the viewer, and imply a larger sense of community with other users who experienced the same things. As far as advertising is concerned, nostalgia comprises far more than inside-joke references and glamorizing a particular period of time.

It’s about remembering the good times and, most importantly, sharing those experiences with others. And that is invaluable.