The Power of Nostalgia in Advertising

Bob Deutsch, in his second column with The Inspiration Room, continues the meeting of cognitive anthropology and marketing in an exploration of nostalgia in advertising. Bob explores the connection between nostalgic yearning and Valentine’s Day. See also Bob’s first column, Marketers Need to Better Understand Creativity.

Bob Deutsch on Valentines Day

Nostalgic Yearnings

As we age our nostalgic yearnings grow, making us more receptive to advertisers and marketers use of what researchers call “a longing for positive memories from the past.” In addition to time’s arrow, this desire for nostalgia is further intensified by society’s present circumstance of receding predictability and opportunity.

While science is still struggling to unravel the neuro-dynamics of nostalgia, studies have identified some nostalgic cues that can be exploited and how images and sounds from the past can create favorable attitudes about products.

Despite being obvious, this strategy taps into something fundamental about the human mind and consciousness. Every time we remember a past event it not only evokes the earlier memory, but can re-cast the past into a more pleasing “remembered” version. Memory, thinking and feeling are an active, shaping process.

Music, Cars, Movies Live On Forever

The music, cars and movies you identified with when you were young stick with you throughout your life. Take music, recordings that were released when we were teenagers or young adults, are locked into our memories forever, to release a flood of vivid memories and emotions when replayed, especially in ads. For example, people who were 23 in 1964, when the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” will turn 70 this year, are a prime target for nostalgic marketing appeals.

For marketers, the key is finding the right music and images, which do not even need to directly relate to their products, as long as warm feelings are stirred up. It is the emotion generated from that good feeling that influences people’s evaluation of the advertised offer.

Recollection provides context and context impacts on how we evaluate things.

Moreover, nostalgia can make us feel that not so much time has passed between then and now, making us feel young(er) again and that we still have a long ways to go and have the time to make it “there.” Nostalgia telescopes time and brings it more under our emotional orchestration.

Nostalgic Case in Point – Valentine’s Day

Nostalgia becomes especially potent during holidays, like Valentine’s Day, due to their powerful call to summon up and renew bonds. Hope is the base coin of holidays, a time of ritual, which tends to reduce cognitive complexity through one’s participation in stylized and oft- repeated enactments. Through ritual, we play a mental trick on ourselves; if the ritual comes off well then we feel life will be good.

The ritual function of Valentine’s Day is similar to all rituals – to make up for the past and to reaffirm the past. To show that despite the press of daily routine and slights encountered, love endures, just as it was when two hearts first met. Most of the time we can be couch potatoes in soiled sweat-suits, but today is different, today is “romance,” a time to symbolically communicate that what we felt and did “then” still lives and will endure.

There is talk of “remember when” (also a song when Boomers were teens). There are flowers, signifying the bloom of Spring, renewal (and the olfactory sense is primitively / directly tied to memory). If allowance allows, perhaps a small diamond might appear (itself a sign of indestructibility).

The sounds, smells, and other accoutrements of Valentine’s Day all function in the service of three sentiments that make up the holy trinity of ritual: There is a shared past. There is continuity. There is future. For us!

Marketing Take-Away

In today’s environment of a perceived diminished future, playing up experiences that engender hope may be a good strategy that produces a mature outcome. A nostalgic approach might just help people see a clearer vision of what is and what is not possible. And, that’s not puppy love by any means.

About Dr. Bob Deutsch

Dr. Bob Deutsch is founder of the consulting firm Brain Sells, Boston, Massachussets. From contributing to Military Review magazine (“The Droning of Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy” (Sept/Oct 2009) to portraying a college professor in a McDonald’s commercial, cognitive anthropologist, Deutsch breaks the mold.

Bob has worked in the primeval forest, as well as on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues. His focus, since the mid-’70s, when he was living with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, has been to understand how leading ideas take hold in a culture. Since opening Brain Sells in 1990, he has been applying this understanding to how people attach to products, persons and performances. He is fond of saying, “Reasoned judgment about attributes is not the issue. The brain evolved to act, NOT to think.”

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