90s Nostalgia Sells So Well Because We're Chasing Fleeting Happiness

Nostalgia is both fuzzy and insanely lucrative.

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Apr 22 2017, 1:00pm

Last week, Beauty and the Beast, the live-action remake of the original 1991 animated film, passed the $1 billion mark at the box office. That's impressive—it's the first film of 2017 to reach that peak—but it's far from surprising. Disney excels at repackaging and reselling our childhoods back to us. It's the same company that built an empire by adapting written fairy tales into animated films. Then, a few years ago, Disney began re-releasing those same films in 3D.

The Mouse's latest penchant, of turning those animated films into live-action remakes, started with the release of Alice in Wonderland in 2010, which also made over $1 billion at the box office. Then came Maleficent in 2014 ($750 million), Cinderella in 2015 ($500+ million), The Jungle Book in 2016 ($950 million), and Pete's Dragon in 2016 ($140 million). Disney will be remaking and releasing Mulan in 2018. And after that? Over a dozen more live-action remakes of Disney animated films are in the pipeline, and they'll be released at the approximate rate of one film per year.

But Disney is not the only media company mining its past for box office gold. Current box office behemoths like The Fate of the Furious, Power Rangers, Smurfs: The Lost Village, and Kong: Skull Island are either continuations of long-established franchises or reboots to pre-existing properties. And the trend won't be declining anytime soon; over 120 remakes or reboots are currently in production. Even video game companies like Nintendo rely on their long-established franchises to drive current sales. The company's mini NES Classic flew off shelves, and the rumored SNES mini will likely do the same.

Many of these properties originated in the late 80's or 90's. Both the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers TV show and the animated Beauty and the Beast film, for example, were released approximately 25 years ago. This is not a coincidence.

"It seems that there's a cycle every 20 years," said Stuart Elliott, who served as The New York Times' advertising columnist for over 20 years, in an interview with Motherboard. "The 50's came back in the 70's. The 90's are coming back now. And in terms of marketing, that's because those are the childhood memories of millennial consumers, who are growing into their adulthood. This is the time when they're expected to buy cars and houses and furniture and all sorts of major purchases."

The feeling that every advertiser wants to evoke in millennials is nostalgia; that warm, comforting sensation that one experiences when recollecting the past. People usually feel nostalgic for their own past, commonly referred to as autobiographical nostalgia. But oddly enough, they can also feel nostalgia for time periods when they weren't alive; perhaps their parents played old music to them when they were young, and now, they associate those sensory details with positive memories.

The term "nostalgia" was first coined in 1688, and it was originally held as a negative character trait or even a disease; American military doctor Theodore Calhoun viewed nostalgia as indicative of weak will and "unmanliness." But the modern view of nostalgia is far more positive. Current research suggests that people use nostalgia to organize their lives into cohesive narratives.

"When you experience something in the present, it's often complex." said Dr. Clay Routledge, psychology professor at North Dakota State University, in an interview with Motherboard. "But when you look back on it, you have [the opportunity] to make sense of it… Humans are in a constant endeavor to make sense of all the stimuli they're taking in, so it's not just a random stream of data. It helps them make predictions about life, and know what to expect from people and situations."

Nostalgic people will often find the "silver lining" in dark pasts. The negative memories aren't repressed, per se, but any positives are extracted and brought to the forefront. British children during World War II, for example, might remember how close they felt to their families during the bombing of their city. In this manner, nostalgia can be a sort of coping mechanism for survivors of trauma and tragedy.

"Negative emotions tend to fade faster than positive emotions," said Routledge. "Nostalgia seems to be adaptive, and weaves even unpleasant experiences into meaningful narratives."

"There is an idea of a psychological immune system," continued Routledge. "Life is full of hardship and trauma and loss and suffering. And as a self-conscious species, we have to grapple with a lot of these anxieties. Other animals have fight-or-flight responses to threat, but they don't subsequently have to ruminate about [those threats] the way that we do. It is adaptive to cope. Otherwise, the species would never be able to dominate the planet the way that it has."

But nostalgia does not only reframe the past. It can also provide comfort in the present. Routledge noted that there are two types of typical nostalgia triggers. The first is a lower order input; one might encounter a familiar smell or song and directly associate it with a distant memory. The second trigger is a higher order function. A person who suffering in the present—of loneliness, for example—may become nostalgic of old friendships.

"This seems to be a regulatory function and an effort to compensate," said Routledge. "And one of the ways that one compensates is by revisiting positive memories.

Elliott further noted that nostalgia becomes popular in times of national downturn. He refers to this as "comfort marketing"—making people remember better times and forget their troubles for a moment. Post-9/11 recovery and the housing market crash of 2007 were both accompanied by the increased demand for nostalgic and fantasy-driven entertainment.

"When people are more optimistic," Elliott observed, "the tendency is look forward towards the future and to what's coming, rather than looking in the rearview mirror."

Marketers convert this type of nostalgia into a reassurance of quality, stability and "good old" tradition. The Coca Cola company is a master at this. Take a look at this Coca Cola ad from 1953:

Image: Coca-Cola

Other soft drink companies change their logos and fonts multiple times to reflect current trends and changing societal norms. But Coca Cola, founded in 1886, has kept the same logo for decades. The company is not chasing what is new; it is using nostalgia—this positive recollection of one's past —to reinforce the reliability and longevity of its brand. It implicitly states: "The same Coke you enjoyed as an innocent, wide-eyed kid is the same Coke you can enjoy today."

"There's this idea of authenticity," said Elliott. "Brands and products are bringing up their heritage and history to reassure shoppers that their product is worth your money and time: 'We're a product that your parents bought and your grandparents bought, and we're still worth buying.'"

In a similar manner, a Hollywood remake or reboot gives consumers an assurance of quality and stability—that if the original franchise has persisted to the current day, then it must still be good. It's a safe investment, and all the remake needs is to add is some modernizing elements. Consumers will even embrace these changes, so long as the core, iconic elements are left intact.

And where is the end point to this most recent nostalgia wave? Will people eventually become desensitized by its emotional, psychological effects? Both Routledge and Elliott can only speculate. Given such a quickly changing, unpredictable media landscape, it's understandable.

"There is a saying in Hollywood that no one knows anything," said Elliott. "The hardest thing to do in consumer marketing is to figure what people want to see in a movie and sell it to them."

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