Nostalgia: A Tool in Marketing

Topics: Advertisement

Within our increasingly consumerist society commodities have become a central cultural substance, and a personal tool for the consumer. Through trial and error, the study of psychology, and careful analysis of the consumer’s practices of perception, advertisers have developed a number of strategies to maximize sales. One strategy which has been notably ubiquitous since the late 20th century is nostalgia advertising. Studies have proven that deliberately nostalgic advertisements generate a higher recollection and preference for an ad and brand, when showed consecutive to non-nostalgic ads.

((Muehling et al. 30)

To gain a deeper understanding of why consumers are so vulnerable to nostalgia marketing I will define personal nostalgia, and communal/historical nostalgia. I will examine two ad examples: one which dominantly harnesses personal nostalgia, and one that harnesses communal nostalgia. In understanding the different kinds of nostalgia and relevant examples, nostalgia marketing success will become coherent.

To fully conceptualize the strategies of advertising, the language from Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image” is useful.

Barthes identifies a signifier, a signified, and a sign within all imagistic advertising. The signified refers to the product being sold, the signifier refers to the meaning that is attached to the product, and the sign is the combination of the two. (Barthes 153) Advertisers are able to present their products (signifieds) with corresponding signifiers of memory, and history. The product and the signifiers create a unified sign: an illusory materialization of a past state or period of time, which in reality is unretrievable. Using “period oriented symbols”, “period oriented music”, portraying the innocent family dynamic, or patriotism advertisers are able to stimulate emotional responses that become attached to the product.

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(Muehling et. al 26)The emotional response of nostalgia can be defined as “an idealized recollection of the past, manifested as a distinctive and often bittersweet association with a past to which we can never return.” (Muehling et. al 26) Advertisements sell not just a product but abstract ideas which are presented as real attainable things. This technique is critical in nostalgia advertising.

The driving force of all consumerism is an innate feeling of lack in humankind, which is attempted to be filled through the purchasing of commodities, and the messages they project.This lack can be explained using psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. He argued that lack and desire are the central driving forces of man. The moment we register that we are separate from our mothers, we recognize ourselves as autonomous subjects. After this moment a lack of wholeness shapes our lives. We then find ourselves longing for a wholeness which never truly existed, but was only imagined in infancy. Because this solidity never really existed, lack can never be satisfied or filled. Personal nostalgia refers to this longing for one’s youth or a previous period distinguished as happy or “better” times.

People embrace advertisements that project messages reminiscent of the childhood state of wholeness, because the product becomes the closest substitute to attaining the idealized state of the past. To harness personal nostalgia advertisers portray familiar settings, ordinary real-life characters, and a sentimental mood to trigger the viewers recollection of personal memories, that they then associate to the product. (Stern 14) Nostalgic ideologies vary for every individual, but there are certain prevalent themes that advertisers use to target large demographics. By emphasizing universal values of family, love, home, and security they target a large majority of viewers, manipulating them to respond personally and emotionally. People are enticed by products that reflect a period in their lives they look back on as a time when they were whole or complete. Consumers turn to nostalgic products to rebuild a fabricated version of this perceived ideal past self.

These techniques are evident in 2017 Folgers Coffee “Dad Mug” commercial. The commercial begins with a father opening a gift his young daughter has given him for Christmas: a mug that reads “Worlds Best Dad”. The girl radiates a childhood innocence with her pigtails, striped shirt, and wide eyes. Based on the styles of clothing it seems to begin in the 1970s. Christmas lights and decor create a warm inviting environment. They hang ornaments on the christmas tree and the father drinks Folgers coffee from his new mug. They look at each other and smile. The widespread tradition of decorating the Christmas tree, and the relationship between father and daughter are broad themes highlighted to prompt a personal recall of one’s own memories that reflect moments portrayed in the commercial. The overall realism of the scenes, make it easy for viewers to relate. The rest of the commercial portrays a gradual passage of time indicated by their aging, and the coffee mugs printed words slowly fading. This passage of time gives Folgers legitimacy as a brand, and portrays it as reliable and stable throughout time. Repeating shots of the same warm cheerful living room, and shots of them decorating the tree cultivate a feeling of tradition and familiarity. At the end it shows the daughter completely grown up with her husband returning to the house she grew up in for Christmas. She gives her dad a present and it’s a mug that says “World’s Best Grandfather” and they smile at each other teary-eyed. This tender moment is meant to represent the cycle of life, and to provoke an emotional response.

As the daughter grows up she clings to her youth and the relationship she had with her dad, the only way she can: through giving her Folgers drinking father a mug for Christmas just as she did in the 70s as a little kid. An acoustic song with sentimental lyrics plays in the background, and towards the end a voice-over states “The things that matter most happen one morning, and one cup at a time.” This phrase emphasizes the value of family, togetherness, and love. The ordinary characters are meant to make viewers empathize and think of their own experiences that are similar. Folgers’ actual product only vaguely appears at 18 seconds, but this is intentional. By subtly implementing the product the ad becomes less about the signified and entirely about the signifiers that the narrative carries. It turns into a sales pitch of family values rather than the coffee itself. By distancing the product, the viewer has space to build emotional connections to the ad which later are attached to the product itself, making them more inclined to buy the product.

This inclination to retrieve the past occurs at a societal level as well. In the face of war, economic dislocations, natural disaster, revolutions or any other major epochal shifts society often reminisces past decades remembering them as some kind of answer or solution to contemporary conflicts. Jacques Barzun explains this tendency with two contradictory themes which he believes dominate the history of Western culture: progress and primitivism. Progress meaning, a forward looking, scientifically and technologically driven worldview. Primitivism refers to the widespread feeling that there is a significant trade-off for progress: the annihilation of communal solidarity, empathy, moral values, and other “innocent aspects” of a previous time. (Brown et. al 20) Since the late nineteenth century the rise of consumerism and the rise of technology have exemplified the constant struggle between progress and primitivism.

With the rapid expansion of factories and the creation urban centers in the late 19th century, people began moving away from their agrarian lifestyles. The small and stable rural communities they had once relied upon, were replaced by the fragmented anonymity of modern city life. People had previously understood their place in the world within the narrow realms of family and community, but were forced to reconsider their place in a much broader sense. There was a general anxiety that fellowship and identity was being compromised in the face of modernization. People had previously constituted there identities with the group of people they “belonged to” and their united values and interests. Without this, people began to rely on consuming commodities to shape their identities and to fill the lack of meaning in their lives. Many theorists argue that sense of community was entirely squandered by advertising which became the new indicator of social values. (Sturken 193) Frankfurt theorists saw consumerism as a whole as a disgraceful replacement of the truly “valuable aspects of existence”. (Sturken 201) The dismantling of authentic social fabric has continued today. Social media has allowed the extremely instantaneous and widespread means of communication, however many recognize it as fragmented and ingenuine in comparison to communication methods of the past. With each shift, advancement, or cultural change within society there is the constant impression that we leave something valuable behind in order to keep progressing in a forward motion. Even those who do not live through the actual shifts may long for a previous state in history.

To harness the power of communal/historical nostalgia advertisers portray products in “long ago, far away” settings, with recognizable period symbols and figures to cultivate an alternate reality of the past. (Stern 14) The ad invites viewers to become a part of this illusory world of the past through purchasing the product. By presenting carefully curated models of history consumers are shown the product within a superficial idealistic version of the past. Because these times are no longer accessible, and people are more inclined to surrender themselves to the world of the ad and less inclined to object to them, these romanticized versions of the past are endorsed. Advertisers often implement pop culture symbols into ads to indicate a reminiscence of specific time periods or decades. Symbols can include historic literary, artistic, or media figures, and period aligned fashion fads, music, and slang. By doing this they are able to selectively target specific demographics and age groups. Older brands have an advantage in nostalgic advertising because they’re able to highlight their brand heritage and longevity to establish signifiers of legitimacy, tradition, and dependability.When the portrayed time period pre-dates the viewers own life they have advertisers trust viewers to use their imagination to build the set of circumstances without their own personal memories to contribute. Imagination allows viewers to empathize with distant figures of the past regardless of period specific differences.(Stern 16) In an increasingly “schizophrenic” postmodern world there is a notion that we no longer live in a world of truth or rationality. (Jameson 5) Consumers are prone to embracing products with signifiers of historical associations because they seem to mark everything that contemporary times are devoid of: close-knit communities, stability, and innocence.

These techniques were evident in Gap’s “Who wore khakis?” ad campaign in the late 1990s. The campaign consisted of over a dozen vintage photographs of famous literary, film, and artistic figures dressed in khakis with the phrase “X wore Khakis” written on each photo. To target large audiences they chose well-liked and easily recognizable pop culture figures. To emphasize authenticity and a casual tone, the famous figures are seen in khakis in ordinary settings, and many of the photos appear to be candid. (Sturken 208) Hemingway walks down the front steps of his house holding his cat in a pair of khakis. Jack Kerouac stands in front of a bar, with a shy smile on his face, wearing khakis. Images are useful tools for constructing an idealized conception of past time periods. Of course, what the picture reveals about each person is only a shallowly fabricated essence of them that excludes all their tragic or flawed characteristics. The ads attach signifiers of authenticity, beauty, youth, creativity, and originality to the ordinary article of clothing with the diverse selection of celebrities, artists, and academics.Viewers register these signifiers, reflect on their own lives, and thereafter identify their disappointing lack of all of these traits. The decision to use untouched archival photos of historical figures rather than pose contemporary figures implies that these ideals are a thing of the past, only made attainable by buying Gap khakis. Also, by drawing from distant time periods Gap reinforces their brand identity as a timeless, dependable brand that sells “classic” clothes.

Works Cited

  1. Brown, Stephen et al. Teaching Old Brands New Tricks: Retro Branding And The Revival Of Brand Meaning. Journal Of Marketing, vol 67, no. 3, pp. 19-33. SAGE Publications. 2003.
  2. Folgers. “Dad Mug” TV Commercial. 2017.
  4. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural

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Nostalgia: A Tool in Marketing. (2022, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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