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  • Writer's pictureAdeleine Whitten

The Nostalgia Factor: How marketing today targets our longing for the past

Nostalgia in Marketing - Your Childhood Is Calling - Professional, kind of

When Netflix’s Stranger Things premiered, the world exploded. Eggo waffles had a sudden surge in popularity, the hashtag #ImWithBarb was all over everyone’s feed, and you couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking if you’d seen this exciting new show about a midwestern boy who disappeared and the strange events that followed.

Within 35 days of its release, around 14.07 million adults had watched the first season, making it the third most watched season of original content on Netflix. But it didn’t stop there – Stranger Things was Netflix’s most watched series in 2019 and 2022. Following its appearance in season 4, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill broke 3 Guinness World Records, likely factoring into her 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Today, each cast member earns millions of dollars per episode, and season 5 remains one of the most anticipated finales in modern history.

On the surface, the show’s popularity doesn’t make sense. Since when did horror-slash-science-fiction dramas about alternate dimensions, telepathic powers, demonic possession, and government conspiracy become…mainstream?

But there’s one factor that description doesn’t take into account, and it’s a critical part of what made Stranger Things the cultural phenomenon it is today. The clothing, the music, the games, even the style of the storytelling itself – Stranger Things is a 1980s time capsule, and the adults who grew up in that world couldn’t get enough. 

The Nostalgia Factor

Nostalgia isn’t a new concept by any means. Humans have always had a fascination with the past, and it’s common for adults to consider their childhood “the good ol’ days”.

Just take a minute to think about your favorite childhood toy, your best friend in elementary school, the block you lived on, the foods you ate, the games you played. Those were the days before you had to worry about work or bills or politics or death. Every morning was exciting, and every day felt limitless.

But as an adult, you have a lot more to consider than just deciding what game you’re going to play today and who you’re going to play it with. And between a life-changing pandemic, the high costs of living, global conflict, political discourse, and all the other stressful circumstances of being alive in the 2020s, the world could use a reminder of just how simple life used to be.

The rise of throwback culture

Around the same time we began “throwing back Thursday”, Millennials and Gen Z began looking for nostalgia in the little things.

For instance, how many of these have you done in the past year?

  • Rewatched your favorite TV show or movie

  • Replayed your favorite video game

  • Bought a snack because you remember loving (or wanting) it as a kid

  • Lamented that your sports team used to be soooo good back in the glory days

  • Watched a TikTok compilation of 90s and early 2000s commercials

  • Visited a town or business you frequented as a child

It’s uncanny, but common – because the past is predictable. You know the last scene of your favorite movie by heart. You already know all the easter eggs in the game you spent 10,000 hours playing as a teenager. Those old commercials have the same cadence that’s been unconsciously bouncing around your brain for twenty years. It’s all familiar. No surprises.

Nothing bad in the past feels bad now because you already know how everything turns out. And no matter how great a new thing seems to be, new is unknown – and that’s always peppered with a little fear.

Commercializing your childhood

Today, we’re witnessing the integration of so-called “throwback culture” in nearly every B2C industry. Media and corporations want to take that warm fuzzy (predictable) feeling you get when you remember your childhood and channel it into the products they’re trying to sell you today. And spoiler alert: it’s working.

Let’s pretend you work for Pop-Tarts.

You know that today’s buying culture is focused on supporting small businesses over large corporations. You know sustainability is at the forefront of consumers’ minds. And healthy food, of course, has been a priority over the last decade or so.

But you also know that life kind of sucks right now. So what do you do?

You remind all the money-having adults how much they loved Pop-Tarts when they were small. Your messaging will say, “Remember how simple life was when your only worry was what flavor Mom was going to buy?” You bring back old flavors. You use throwback packaging.

You’re no longer selling them the brick of sugar a bunch of men in suits have somehow deemed a suitable breakfast – you’re selling them back their childhood.

But there are other examples beyond junk food. Companies also capitalize on your nostalgia by:

  • Rebooting your comfort show (See: Fuller House, That '90s Show, and iCarly)

  • Getting the original cast back together for a (televised) reunion

  • Making a live action version of your favorite Disney movie

  • Remastering your favorite N64 games for Nintendo Switch

  • Bringing back Dunkaroos and Oreo Cakesters

  • Creating throwback jerseys with the old logo and names of retired players

And then you say to your friend, “Did you see they’re bringing back 3D Doritos?” or “The new Harry Potter show will never come close to the original movies!”

Then you talk about it, and you consume it, then you talk about it some more.

Embracing nostalgia

Like it or not, The Nostalgia Factor continues to be a common strategy in today’s marketing. But it isn’t all a bunch of skeezy scam artists whose sole intent is to capitalize on your childhood and steal your hard-earned cash. Many times, the people behind these tactics are just like me and you – kids at heart longing for the past.

And in many ways, it’s actually a nice way of reminding us all what we love about life.

Because let’s face it: life is hard. Being a twenty-something today means we’ve lived through enough major historical events and unprecedented times to last us a lifetime. And sometimes, we need a little reminder that there’s more to life than what’s on the news.

So eat the Pop-Tart, even though it offers zero nutritional value. Bask in the sugar without looking at the calorie count, and take a trip down memory lane. 

And while you’re at it, go see the probably-terrible remake of your favorite movie. Buy that toy you always wanted but Santa never brought. Replay a video game that no longer requires any brain power after playing it so many times. And yes, watch the shows that perfectly encapsulate the world you grew up in, even if they’re a little strange.

Because while these material things won’t actually make you six years old again – running around the block with your neighbors, playing a game you all made up this morning, waiting eagerly for the fireflies to come out – you might feel like you are, even if only for a few minutes.

And isn’t that the closest we can get to money buying happiness?

Adeleine Whitten | Professional, kind of

is a marketer by day and writer by night, weekend, and sometimes lunch break. You can often find her with a good book or in the Taco Bell drive-thru.

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