The Power Of Nostalgia In Advertising

Dr. Bob DeutschJanuary 26, 20103 min

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.

Notaligic 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.

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Dr. Bob Deutsch


  • Parissab

    February 5, 2010 at 3:34 pm


    I really enjoy this blog! I’m a little late in responding to this one but I do have one small quibble here. Nostalgia works if a population is homogeneous which goes against what’s really happening in the US today. As an immigrant, my parents don’t have the benefit of remembering the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or any other pop culture icon since then. My parents are assimilated and extremely educated but nevertheless, I have to explain the context or history of something… It’s almost like they are not “in on the joke” or similar.

    My point? I think Nostalgia’s 15 minutes are up – nostalgic reference intended. 🙂


    Parissa Behnia

  • Ross

    March 11, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    @Parissa – Sure, you’re an immigrant and cannot relate to some of the things nostalgic references but lets not forget about those who grew up in America. Those memories will not be erased no matter how many immigrants cross through the borders – Nostalgias 15minutes aren’t up… They’re just beginning. The same way the Baby Boomers think back to the days of Elvis we will think back to the days of Tik Tok….As sad as that is.

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