Why Nostalgia Appeals to Younger Audiences (Guest Column)

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How does it work, who does it impact and why is it especially powerful now?

Nostalgia. It’s always been a powerful force in marketing, but now it’s on steroids. Advertisers and studios are using it for everything from logo redesigns to pop-up experiences, product choices and content development. Is it just another marketing fad? Is it just another take on “authentic storytelling?" How does it work, who does it impact and why is it especially powerful now?

How does it work?

Nostalgia is effective because of how it relates to our perception of ourselves. We construct our identities by looking at our lives backwards, through the lens of memory. When we do this, we often idealize our past, making it nicer than it was. This new and improved past becomes our internal truth. 

Engaging with nostalgic products or content triggers our memories of our idealized past and helps us regulate distress. Music is a powerful nostalgia trigger. One study found that people who were exposed to popular songs from their youth were more likely to say that they felt loved and that life was worth living. But nostalgia does more than simply provide us with good feelings: it also weakens our resolve to save money. In fact, the Journal of Consumer Research reports that consumers are more likely to spend, and spend more, on a product that evokes nostalgic feelings.

Who does it impact?

Anyone going through a time of intense transition is more likely to respond to nostalgic prompts. The process of growing up is one of constant change, so young people are particularly likely to be drawn to things that evoke their childhood. As a result, young people are traditionally the target of campaigns, content and products that exploit nostalgia. 

Why is it especially powerful now?

The current generation of young adults has never lived in a world without terrorism. They are facing staggering student debt and an economy on the verge of recession. Heightening their personal insecurity and anxiety is a social media landscape in which their peers are constantly broadcasting an apparently ideal existence. As a result, today’s young people are more anxious than the generations that came before them.

Additionally, society overall is experiencing tectonic shifts and uncertainty. It is no coincidence that the economic trends brought about by the fourth industrial revolution and the existential threat of climate change have coincided with the rise of “Make America Great Again” nostalgic nationalism. As we enter a new election cycle in a highly divisive political environment, we can anticipate that nostalgia will continue to be a particularly powerful and effective force across all age groups.

Gabriella Mirabelli is executive vp consumer insights and brand strategy for Valence Media, parent of The Hollywood Reporter.