Nostalgia isn’t always innocent fun, as the recent Roald Dahl furore demonstrates. Simon Carr of Hearts & Science suggests anyone thinking of using nostalgia in their marketing should carry out a risk assessment.

Seventy-three percent of consumers enjoy things that remind them of the past. As such, the ‘90s nostalgia that was so apparent during this year’s Super Bowl ad spots (Clueless, Bennifer etc.) seemed a safe bet – especially after fashion weeks across London, Paris and Milan leant heavily on 90s and early Y2K aesthetics.

But is nostalgia really as safe as marketers might assume? And even if it were, is it ethically right for brands to cling so tightly to the past when our future feels so uncertain?

We know many people like to reflect on easier times, notably their childhood years. Hence it’s no great surprise to have seen Gen X shows like Stranger Things do so well, or franchises like Ghostbusters return just in time for that cohort’s kids to reach their tween and teens. 

Getting on the cultural radar of the most solvent audiences is one thing, getting them to part with their cash is another though. 

Insights platform Zappi, tested every ad that ran during the Super Bowl and pinpointed 16 that included cultural references that dated back beyond a decade. There was no issue with likeability since each of the ads over-indexed on this factor. However they also saw a 5% drop in brand linkage. In other words, people may have enjoyed the ads but they were less likely to remember what brand each was touting. 

Acceptable in the 80s?

Positive nostalgic associations can only go so far – the past doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny. After all, as times change so too do the cultural mores. As Roald Dahl and Fawlty Towers fans will tell you, what may have once seemed innocent, now risks being “cancelled”. Given the (even fairly recent) past was rife with social division, racism, sexism and homophobia, it’s fair to say that nostalgia warrants a risk assessment.

We may remember the popular culture of our formative years through the warm lenses of rose-tinted glasses, but as any parent will tell you, tastes change. I showed my kids – possibly the world’s biggest MrBeast fans – Knight Rider recently … it’s fair to say they won’t be hassling the Hoff any further.  

On a deeper level, we should bear in mind that nostalgia is, by its very nature, excluding. While it might work wonders for a tightly defined and targeted audience, it will do nothing for or, worse, actively put off others. As such, it won’t work for every brand and marketer, and they should be very sure who their core audiences are before risking leaving swathes of them behind.  

You’ve never had it so good?

I’ve never completely understood the yearning for the “good old days” celebrated at retro- themed events like Glorious Goodwood. Yes, the bunting is nice and I can often see the appeal of the pre-digital age, but this is fauxstalgia, the yearning for an era that sections of the audience never lived through. 

I can certainly understand why celebrating a pre-tipping point “golden era” that our children and grandchildren may never experience might not go down particularly well with generations whose role models are more aligned to Greta Thunberg than Grace Kelly.

Given the risks, is it time for nostalgia to be confined to the, ahem, past or is there still a place for its use in marketing campaigns? There is definitely a balancing act to be done. Yes, it is fine for brands to cherry pick past signifiers if we can make them relevant to contemporary audiences – for instance, DDB’s ‘Singing in the Rain’ ad for Volkswagen remains a personal favourite – but let’s not wallow in the past. 

Actually, what younger people need from brands right now is the reassurance that they are championing a better future, or preferably can be seen taking tangible action to make this a possibility.

There is an argument doing the rounds that digital natives have grown up in a world in which culture has been flattened. Past and present coexist online. Divorced from context, they can be remixed into something new – as we see in the mash-up culture that permeates social media feeds and music streams, and extends out into catwalks and high streets. 

It remains to be seen how web3 and AI tools will reinterpret and reimagine our cultural history, especially when unshackled from human baggage and preconceptions. Some of those listening to Kraftwerk for the first time in the 70s likened the experience to future shock, so it seems apt that an actual machine should be the root cause for this next time!.  

Nostalgia can work for different audiences if it is approached in a considered way. But it is not a quick and easy win and it is not without risk. It can feel ethically dubious to hang on to an idealised – and often largely fictitious – past if we gloss over the more problematic issues of the era we celebrate. The past may indeed have been a different country, but it wasn’t necessarily a better one. 

The rebooted James Bond films were broadly successful in maintaining the recognisable signifiers of the franchise that fans respond to, while questioning those that haven’t aged well.  Building on this model, perhaps marketers should call on nostalgia as a cultural short-hand for dated attitudes and use it as a way to ask what positive impact the brand can make in the future.