Brief Answers to Big Questions: What Are the Pros and Cons of Using Nostalgia In Marketing?

Published: May 20, 2024

by Justin Difazzio

We’re back with another big question! One of the trends we keep seeing pop up is media with a heavy dose of nostalgia. It’s everywhere, from commercials and print ads to movies to clothing to design. Right now, as always, nostalgia carries a ton of weight for people with disposable income. Things that come from a simpler time (at least as far as our clouded memories know) bring up thoughts of ease, happiness, simplicity, and joy. But…were they really such idyllic times? The same touchstones that make some people feel warm and fuzzy can make others remember a time that was, perhaps, not such a golden age.

So let’s consider the pros and cons of using nostalgia in your marketing.

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Nearly Endless Source Material

Once you know who your audience is, there’s almost no end to the memorable tv show scenes, classic movie lines, and ridiculous clothing trends you can reference. The thing is, every age group has some hilarious piece of media it champions, some “Flames. Flames on the side of my face” it can reference, some side ponytail with neon leg warmers it would like to forget. The future holds all the cringe any of us could need (2023’s Q-tip haircut trend, we’re looking at you), so you never have to worry about running out of material.

Promotes Good Feelings

We’re pretty sure everyone loves seeing some toy from their childhood that they thought they were the only one who remembered. Teddy Ruxpin? Stretch Armstrong? Polly Pocket? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Technodrome playset? Even if you never owned it, you dreamed about it when the commercials came on. That rush of good feelings you got still lingers in your blood, ready to come rushing back to the surface when you lay eyes on that holy grail toy you couldn’t live without. Nostalgia is a powerful way to shorthand childhood joy. That’s why it’s so prevalent.

Can Make Us Laugh at Ourselves

For those things that we remember that maybe don’t spark joy, we can always laugh at ourselves. We can’t be the only ones who walked around in a plastic mask with the name of our costume proudly emblazoned on a plastic cloak or a cheezy set of arm guards and a cape. Yeah, looking back, the jelly sandals and the Barbie jacuzzi and the scrunchies and the seven neon watches on our wrists at once was…a bit much. Thankfully, that sort of stuff can always make us laugh. And any media that makes us laugh is pretty effective (not to mention shareable).

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Alienates People

“But I love blazers with shoulder pads and poofy hair like they had in the tv show Dallas,” we hear you say. Well…shoot. By making fun of it, we just alienated a potential client. We’re sorry. But also, there are a lot of styles out there, and maybe it’s time to put down the Aqua Net and get with the times. That is to say, when you’re using nostalgia, you risk using something for a laugh that someone still thinks is the bee’s knees, groovy, radical, and bodacious. And that could be a total bummer for them. So just beware that your brilliant campaign could make people say, “Gag me with a spoon” or “Barf out!”

Easy to Miss the Mark

You obviously can’t hit the mark for every potential client using the same bit of nostalgia. People born after 2000 are likely not going to find anything to like about 1990s nostalgia—at least not until the 90s trends popular now go away long enough for them to be nostalgic about them again. So just know that if you’re trying to cast a wide net, agewise, perhaps nostalgia-based campaigns aren’t the tool for the job.

Could Trigger Bad Memories

And lastly, when you’re using nostalgia, you could unwittingly be triggering someone’s memories from a time they’d rather forget. Maybe the 80s weren’t so flashy and fabulous for someone. Maybe the time of Jem and the Holograms wasn’t truly, truly, truly outrageous for them. Showcasing a specific product from a bygone era might make people sad that they never got to have an Atari 2600, a Pontiac Firebird with that sweet decal on the hood, or a Salad Shooter. You can’t control what triggers someone else’s bad memories, and there’s really no way to predict that outcome, but that’s just a risk you take when you choose nostalgia in your marketing.

Whether nostalgia will be a boon or a bust for your marketing campaign is up to you. Just be aware of the impact your message can have, and try to tailor it so it’s more off-the-chain than out-to-lunch, if you know what we mean. And if not, eh…maybe the 70s wasn’t your decade! But whatever decade you and your target audience come from, you can bet there’s something you can find to bring back those peaceful, easy feelings with your marketing.