Back to the future

As we age, we grow more confident in the knowledge that we’re more acutely aware of the marketing ploys and clever wiles of advertising agencies. We’re hardened and discerning consumers, immune to the age-old tactics of marketing moguls and impervious to the greed of the ‘me-me’ generation. We’re deliberate consumers driven by erudite purchasing choices, safe in the knowledge that the blazon billboards and high-gloss middle-page spreads are speaking the language of a credit hungry ‘must have’ generation. But for the inimitable and somewhat incomprehensible power of nostalgia, we’d probably be right.

While scientists are still trying to unravel the neuro-dynamics of nostalgia, advertising agencies are ploughing full-steam ahead, confident in what they already know – that in times of economic downturn and unstable international affairs, nostalgia has the interminable ability to sell. Through the corridors of time, our yearnings for nostalgia grow and make us more receptive to advertisers and marketers. We develop an indescribable longing for positive memories from the past, especially when faced with future unpredictability. In its most basic form, retro marketing is nothing more than using the past to sell the present, and its genius lies in the combination of simplicity and human emotion. In a world gripped by turmoil, corruption, disease, poverty and war, nostalgia provides a solution for our search for authenticity. People associate the past with authenticity, and attaching one’s product to the past makes it undeniably authentic.

That’s not to say that retro marketing always works. For every successful VW advert, there’s a retro product that never found its way to the heart of an aging generation. As simple as the concept of retro-marketing sounds, its success depends on a careful blend of music and images from a by-gone era that are deliberately crafted into a product that makes us reminisce about the past with rose-coloured glasses and an irrational longing for times gone by. The innate beauty of nostalgia lies in the very fact of its universality. What forty-something doesn’t remember Tom Cruise’s aviator sunglasses in “Top Gun”? And believe it or not, the aviator sunglasses used by Tom Cruise in this 1980s classic were a retro comeback from a time when General MacArthur wore aviator sunglasses while liberating the Phillipines in 1937. Not to be outdone by the age-old aviator, wayfarer-style sunglasses made popular in the early eighties by shock princess, Madonna, have made a successful comeback by adhering to the obligatory ‘twenty-year’ rule of retro marketing.

From left: General MacArthur with his aviator sunglasses in 1937, followed by Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” and a modern-day Tom Cruise. In 2012, Madonna is wearing the same wayfarers that she made famous back in the 1980s.

Operating on the premise that a minimum period of twenty years must elapse in order for a product’s re-emergence to evoke feelings of nostalgia, the timing of a product’s comeback is pivotal. Had today’s retro-style furniture been re-introduced in the 1980s it probably would have been met with luke-warm distaste by interior designers the world over. Roll on the twenty-first century and bingo! Vinyl upholstery and lime green fridges suddenly appear chic through the telescope of time. Ditto for the range of vinyl-inspired crockery, cushions and handbags.

From last decade’s junk to 21st century retro-funk!

From “Dirty Dancing” to “Dallas”, the entertainment industry, too, knows the value of nostalgia when it comes to booking out the box office. If you can sing along to “I had the time of my life” and subsequently mourned the death of Patrick Swayze, you’re likely to be part of the audience that watches this movie’s courageous comeback. If you read Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in the 1980s, watching Johnny Depp master the role of Willa Wonka was a done deal. And if you thought JR Ewing died with Bennie Boekwurm, you were entirely wrong. In fact, the infamous Ewing family is alive and well, and is currently being broadcast on MNet at 9 pm on – you guessed it – a Tuesday night.

9 o’clock on a Tuesday evening means one thing and one thing only – Dallas!

While research shows that people turn to cheap entertainment and comfort food during times of economic downturn, it appears that another trend is the resurgence of iconic brands that provide us with a sense of safety and security which transcends time. We turn to products like Bovril, Bisto and Brasso which are the touchstones of all that is authentic and faithful. These brands are embedded in our consciousness and remain symbols of a constant, unchanging past. And while we might not all have enjoyed Weet-bix or Liquorice All Sorts in our somewhat distant youth, somehow the retro-packing of these iconic brands decades later provides a form of emotional comfort to us. It appears that nostalgia has the ability to bring life and vitality to a seemingly dull product and give added meaning to our current existence. Impressed by the power of nostalgia to give fresh life to common brands, retailers have embraced the irony of revitalising the old with a touch of the even older.

Ilovo is the world’s oldest brand and has remained virtually unchanged since 1885. 85% of people recognise the brand immediately.

Trading on the power of the human memory to recast a past event into a more pleasing ‘remembered’ version, vehicle manufacturers cleverly use nostalgia to provide us with retro vehicles without the drawbacks of old. The new Fiat 500, equipped with a plethora of mod-cons, is a retro-marketer’s dream. Aimed at today’s equivalent of the 1960s trendsetter, the vehicle is equally appealing to anyone who has nostalgic yearnings for their flower-power years. Its re-entry into the market is far from coincidental as the world clamours for smaller, more fuel-efficient and cost-effective vehicles in the midst of economic hard times.

The Fiat 500 – a classic example of using the past to sell the future.

In a world of uncertain future, it is human nature to yearn for something that provides stability, albeit in an idealised form. As scientific and technological advances progress at a fearfully unstoppable rate, the use of nostalgia provides a momentary pause that allows us to remember a seemingly simpler past when looking back from the future. The beauty of nostalgia lies in its very dichotomy – that enough time has passed to conjure up powerful personal emotions, combined with a sense that one’s feelings are still fresh enough to permit one’s memory to fully engage in the indescribably satisfying act of remembering.

Have a super week!


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