Nostalgia : Easy to Sell, Hard to Resist but Manipulation?

From Stranger Things and Star Wars to the Cadbury & CRED Advertisements, nostalgia has engulfed the entertainment and media world. While experts have weighed in on why nostalgia sells, it is time to consider whether it’s a strategy that is there to compensate for the lack of actual creativity or creativity in itself?

For most people, the memories of the past are but mere memories; sights and smells that can make you feel wistful and remind you of better times but that leave you with a bittersweet feeling. However, with each passing year that feeling is slowly being seeked into some of the most successful media we consume. From Advertisements to songs, creators and brands are successfully capitalizing on this emotion and reaping huge benefits. The consumers, despite being able to acknowledge this intentional sale of nostalgia, welcome it whole-heartedly.

This trend has successfully pushed shows like Stranger Things into the zenith of pop culture, where despite the great story and characters it’s the simplistic charm and callbacks to the 1980s Hollywood that drew audiences in. However, for even those who couldn’t relate to the nostalgia, the thrilling plotline and endearing characters won them over over. However, the nostalgia play doesn’t necessarily mean a boon and can also be turned into a bane if the other creative or business aspects are compromised with. The biggest case here is that of the Star Wars Sequel movies. While the first of the sequels (Star Wars : The Force Awakens) really played the nostalgia card aggressively by bringing back iconic characters (Luke, Leia and Han Solo) and having a plotline which had huge resemblances to the original, the subsequent handling of fan favorite characters and unfavorable creative liberties taken, set the same fanbase against the franchise. While it wasn’t hit hard financially, the bait-and-switch play made a severe dent to the brand.

Back home, brands such as Cadbury, Cred & Swiggy have tried to bring back iconic jingles and catchphrases from the 90s and tried to give them a modern spin. The nostalgia play in the advertisement sector works better than in the entertainment sector, primarily because there is a creative spin attached to these advertisements which make them feel familiar but relevant and modern at the same time. The way people perceive these is very different with the use of nostalgia in the advertisement sector being perceived as a stroke of marketing genius. At the same time, the use of nostalgia in the entertainment sector, though initially seen as harmless, is now starting to be seen as a tactic to lure audiences in without having done the actual work.

The effect of nostalgia in providing “social connectedness” is seen through the continued popularity of music from the early 2000s, be it Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls. The comfort that it provides to the current generation of people in their 20s and 30s can only be something that is understood by themselves, indicating a sense of psychological ownership. Even shows like ‘FRIENDS’ and movies like ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ and ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ have a strong sentiment of nostalgia attached to them which is what has kept them relevant all these years. It’s not the artistry or the messaging of these products that has been the reason for their success but rather the comfort and sentimentality that their consumption provides. Even the success of re-recordings by artists like Taylor Swift has a lot to do with the nostalgia it provides to the listeners. While the reasons to re-record have been creative ownership, the marketing and consumption of the products have had the nostalgia factor come to be at play.

But, the interesting thing to observe is how strongly effective nostalgia is. Various psychologists have tried to decode the reasons behind this. Nostalgia comes from a past memory but that which happened at a moment of emotional arousal, which makes the memory stronger & the stronger the power of the memory on our psyche, the greater probability that the association will trigger nostalgia. Especially in times of social upheaval or personal turmoils, nostalgia has a strong emotional and social effect by inducing feelings of connectedness and providing perspective and continuity to life.

However at the same time, nostalgia without purpose or nostalgia done wrong often seems counterproductive as it leaves the consumer with a bitter aftertaste and affects the brand value. Invoking something from the past that people have strong opinions about will mean that the audience would be sensitive about the treatment. In addition with the ascent of social media into everyone’s lives, people are quick to dismiss nostalgia tactics if they feel it’s without purpose. Thus, while it is a powerful tool, the sensitivity attached means it needs to be handled with full responsibility and clarity.

As time passes and the nostalgia becomes more and more used, it would be interesting to see how brands and creators use it going forward, given that the effects of improper handling could lead to long-term damage to the brand. Thus, while nostalgia is an easy to sell and hard to resist tool, the focus on the purpose of it being used and the responsible handling are important to ensure that it does not come across as manipulation.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.


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