Nostalgia Act

April 21, 2021

By Matthew Schwartz

beastfromeast/Getty Images

I didn’t learn how to cook paella. Or crack open Infinite Jest, Davis Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic novel that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I couldn’t even muster the energy to take a five-minute calisthenics class online. Contrary to the clamor in the media, I didn’t find a new hobby or enthusiasms to help pass the hours during the lockdown wrought by COVID-19. Having a full-time job (fortunately) that I enjoy has been more than enough to keep me occupied. However, as a slight diversion I recently started to listen to a podcast whose appeal relates to the marketing strategy many brands are now deploying as the pandemic enters its second year.

The podcast, 1049 Park Avenue: The Odd Couple podcast, features a granular look at the 1970-1975 sitcom about finicky photographer Felix Unger and slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison sharing a Manhattan apartment — and driving each other crazy. Based on the Neil Simon play of the same name, the sitcom was heavily syndicated in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I started to watch and was immediately hooked. (The show reboot, from 2015, is ghastly.)

The co-hosts of the podcast, Ted Linhart and Garrett Eisler, jovially deconstruct each episode, kibbitz about the infinite foibles of both Felix and Oscar, and point out the lack of continuity that animates most sitcoms. Each podcast is nicely sprinkled with audio clips, as well. Listening to Felix and Oscar bicker over burnt Beef Wellington reminds me of a less complicated time, an unabashed exercise in nostalgia. But I’m not alone.

With the present situation regarding the virus uncertain, at best, we’re predisposed to advertising content that revels in the past (and even if it’s the not-too-distant past).

Indeed, nostalgic ads continue to see an uptick amid the pandemic, according to a new eMarketer report, with some of the biggest brand advertisers getting into the act.

Take Geico’s “Not In My House.” The 30-second spot features former NBA star (and second all-time shot blocker) Dikembe Mutombo reviving his famous “No No” finger wag and merrily swiping away several flying objects — crumpled paper, a cereal box — to show how happy consumers get when they switch to Geico and save on insurance.

Uber Eats reunited perennial teenagers Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey), from Wayne’s World fame, to show support for (and promote) local restaurants. The ad campaign, which rolled out during Super Bowl LV, includes several iterations, such as one with rapper Cardi B chiming in (perhaps in a bid to contemporize the message).

Liberty Mutual, which regularly uses comedy to communicate, takes nostalgic advertising to a meta and logical conclusion with its “Something to Help You Remember” commercial.

Liberty Mutual serves up the nostalgia with gusto in “Something to Help You Remember,” which promotes the company’s customized home insurance. Many consumer brands are tapping into a nostalgic vein amid the pandemic, as people find comfort in the familiar. Liberty Mutual/YouTube

Brands are also tapping into a nostalgic vein through other marketing channels. PLBY Group, which owns the Playboy brand, announced earlier this month that it will roll out a new version of the Playboy jet, dubbed the Big Bunny, which has been grounded since 1975, as a marketing vehicle (literally). Burger King is going retro with its new logo, an homage to the packaging designs the fast food chain used in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

But marketing with a nostalgic twist isn’t just a one way-street, enabling people to simply wallow in the past and forget the present. Studies show that nostalgia can play a key role in psychological resilience, which will be needed in abundance as a post-pandemic world unfolds and people face unforeseen challenges both at work and at home.

“Brands are trying to get to that emotional space,” Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing and the co-chair of faculty research at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, told ANA magazine. “Sometimes we call this ‘laddering up the hierarchy of needs,’ from functional to emotional. And where nostalgia fits in that pathway is to create that emotional connection.”

With most people exhausted from the last year — and recovery from the pandemic likely to take years — emotionally driven messaging will continue to be top of mind among brand managers and their agencies.

What’s more, the entire notion of nostalgic advertising may have flipped in the past year, as Before Times now seems like it was eons ago. Depending on the brand/message/audience, portraying life circa late 2019 or early 2020 may soon qualify as nostalgic advertising.

And don’t be surprised if a few years from now — when we’re overscheduled, rapidly depleting our social dollars, and can’t catch a minute — you start to see ads and marketing messages that hark back to the lockdowns, pining for those days when there was a whole lot of nothing to do.


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