Reminiscing and the power of nostalgia in advertising

Nostalgia advertising can be a successful and powerful tool for companies if executed correctly

Darrel Muehling

Everyone has random memories that spark nostalgia and bring a smile to their faces. Whether an individual is recalling the taste of a family recipe, the rush of learning to ride a bicycle, a particular song, photograph or movie scene, nostalgia can not only impact an individual’s mood, but also influence thought processes and decision making.

Consumers tend to respond differently to advertisements that elicit feelings of nostalgia as opposed to traditional, straight-forward advertising. Positioning messages around first dates and first cars, or with familiar scenes of baseball games and family camping trips, can elicit positive responses from consumers. Armed with this knowledge, advertisers leverage nostalgia-based messaging to create positive associations with a brand or specific product. It is a powerful tool.

Even though this approach can affect purchasing behavior by influencing brand associations or product evaluations, companies must understand how to successfully implement it. Nostalgia does not always elicit positive thoughts.

Unexpected effects can occur for various reasons, including a person’s emotional state and/or current situation. These factors impact a person’s reaction to an advertisement due to “affect-transferring” – namely, how a person’s mood affects the influence of an advertisement. A person who is already upset due to a problem at work, for example, is less likely to be affected positively by a nostalgic advertisement than someone who just finished an important project. Advertisers cannot control factors affecting that person’s existing emotions, but they can prime consumers at the time of exposure. Advertisers may strategically influence consumer mood or positive response by utilizing headlines or content that promote humor or optimism, or by placing advertisements in specific magazines or during certain television programs.

A negative association can also occur when a scene leads people to realize they never actually had the experience depicted. An individual may attempt to personalize the moment presented, even if he never actually experienced the time or activity. Upon seeing scenes of a carnival, for example, a person may realize he missed out on this childhood experience and associate a feeling of sadness with the brand.

Although ads that connect with people on a personal level are generally more successful, advertisers may aim to create a more general feeling of nostalgia that can apply to a larger group of people, increasing the chance that viewers will experience it. This can be accomplished by researching a target market, thus allowing the marketer to consider strategies that will reach as many potential customers as possible. Advertisers also can identify people, places and items that will connect with the majority of a target market, increasing the likelihood of an advertisement’s success. Types of nostalgia that emphasize collective types of experiences, such as holidays and family events, may be more suitable in advertising applications.

Nostalgia advertising can be a successful and powerful tool for companies if executed correctly. While an element of unpredictability is always present, it is important to create broad appeal advertisements and ensure their placement matches the feeling a company wants to evoke. The success of nostalgic advertising depends on the emotions associated with the retrieved memories, and advertisers must do what they can to ensure a positive outcome.

Darrel D. Muehling is professor and chair of the WSU Carson College of Business’ Department of Marketing and International Business at WSU, where he has been a faculty member since 1985. Muehling received his Ph.D. in business administration (emphasis in marketing) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1985. His teaching responsibilities at WSU have been in the areas of promotion management and principles of marketing (both at the undergraduate and graduate levels). He has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards since joining the faculty at WSU.