Despite the fact that at the turn of the century I was still a toddler attempting to string together comprehensible sentences, I very much identify with the allure and inexplicable mysticism of being a 90s baby. From Smashmouth and Arthur memes to chokers and flannels, I have fully embraced the revival of millenials’ favorite decade. Though it has been evidenced that trends recirculate and retro (whatever you consider it to be) is always alive in at least one subgroup of the population, millenials have a unique connection to the past that anthropologists and sociologists have come to refer to as “early onset nostalgia.” And, as with most Gen Y & Gen Z phenomenons, they’re blaming it on social media.
The digital nature of ours lives creates a parallel reality in which every action and thought, important or not, is chronicled and documented online. Our Facebook feeds serve as public diaries of our time in middle school and neat photo albums of entire years or special events that followed; Instagram acts as a chronological highlights reel; and Twitter is arguably our most direct contact with what is happening moment to moment anywhere around the world.
Having grown up in an era with unprecedented access to our own personal history, including a lot of memories–and friends– we likely would not otherwise remember, millenials are afforded the distinct ability to tap into their former lives, largely shrouded in a bout of rosy retrospection. And, then, of course, there is the epitome of millennial social media nostalgia: the #tbt. Though initially created to post pictures dating back a few years at the minimum, the #tbt has since grown to be applicable to any picture not taken on the day it was posted. The hashtag now gets thrown onto random quotes, is used in casual conversation “tbt to that time you..” and most definitely does not have to be used exclusively on a Thursday. It’s even seen some copycats, like #flashbackfriday, because apparently one day a week is not enough. Millenials are obsessed with romanticizing the past, even if that past is only a couple of days ago.
Add in the fact that we’re being re-exposed to our cultural past–television, music, movies, and books–in the form of the funniest or most profound quotes, memes, and gifs, and you have young people fantasizing over a life they probably did not even experience. I know that I personally have even analogized friends’ relationships to Ross & Rachel’s and have successfully pinpointed which member of my friend group would be every character in Friends, yet I have only actually seen a few episodes in passing. (a tragedy, I know).
But that is the power of social media re-marketing–the past resurfaces in a way that is so independent of its original context that it can be given a completely new meaning, usually without anyone even realizing.
So, how do marketers exploit our innocent desire for the past?
First off, they recognize how powerful it can be. Nostalgia creates an extremely intense emotional response; there has even been research done that proves nostalgia makes people feel more connected to one another, and makes people feel physically warmer in cold environments.
Yes, you read that correctly. People actually can become physically warmer after being exposed to something that stimulates nostalgia. Pro tip: if you ever find yourself stranded in the mountains somewhere, just think about CatDog and you’ll warm right up.
Because so much of marketing is now done digitally, where there is less opportunity for a personalized connection to a brand, tools like nostalgia marketing are a necessary part of bridging the gap between company and consumer.
Marketers also use social media to their advantage, not only for advertisement purposes, but for research. Remember that digital history of your life you created? That just became an ad agency’s biggest resource, and it’s completely free of charge. Social media acts as a database of what’s popular, where it’s popular, when it’s popular, and who it’s popular with. The digital footprint we’ve all been creating since we first created online profiles allows for better prediction accuracy of up and coming trends.
Think about something like Fuller House, relaunched as A Netflix Original Series in February 2016– had “you got it dude” gifs not been floating around the internet and videos of Uncle Jesse’s “Forever” serenade not been labeled #relationshipgoals, it’s unlikely anyone would have thought to bring back the 1987 sitcom.
Had Gameboys not been romanticized in listicles like “[insert arbitrary number} Moments Only 90s Kids Will Appreciate” and “50 Best Memories for Any 90s Kid,” our world may have endured the insufferable loss of an uninvented Pokemon Go.
Eating our feelings…
Nostalgia has even permeated the food industry: after years of begging, Burger King mercifully brought back chicken fries (and promoted it with a very successful #ChickenFriesAreBack social media campaign), and Coca Cola brought Surge, a drink they sold in the 90s, back to market.
There is absolutely no reason for these two items to be so highly
demanded– citrus flavored soda originally failed for a reason, and shoe-string style chicken definitely does not taste any different than your average chicken nugget, but they bring back memories and they make people feel good.
Both Coca Cola and Burger King (along with the producers of Fuller House, creators of Pokemon GO, and so many other companies) were aware of cultural reverence surrounding their products, and used it to their advantage, though reviving them was unlikely in anyone’s 10 or 20 year plans.
Nostalgia marketing is a niche skillset that can be extremely successful when harnessed correctly. It could lead to millions of dollars in sales for a product could be largely unworthy, and has the ability to create a cultural phenomenon among millenials. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about my emotions being so explicitly targeted, but I do know that I’d really like someone to bring back moon shoes, so I guess I’m okay with it.