Nostalgia Blackmail


Image courtesy of Old School Paul

One of the defining features of this recession is the number of brands immersing themselves in utterly self-indulgent nostalgia trips in a desperate attempt to curry favour with increasingly cynical consumers.

Hovis were first out of the traps last year with their British history lesson on speed that picked up where the flat cap wearing delivery boy and his bike left off in the early 1970s. Although by then Mars had already heralded the dawn in a new age of nostalgia by returning to their iconic ‘work, rest and play’ endline.

But recently the trickle of nostagia has assumed flood-like proportions. And there is clearly no better way to dish up a bit of ‘as good today as it’s always been’ than by celebrating a brand’s birthday, particularly if the number you can come up with is north of a century. All of which explains why flamboyant tours of brand heritage are flavour of the month in ad-land.

In a brief cease-fire in the hotly contested dine-in-for-a-fiver battle, M&S and Sainsbury’s are currently slugging it out to prove exactly how incredibly old they are. Although whether producing almost identical ads, right down to both supermarkets claiming to have introduced the avocado to British palates, was a wise idea is debatable. Especially as they both try to out Hovis Hovis in the sepia tinted film and street urchin department.

While over in the detergent category Persil is busy telling us they have reached the relatively modest age of 100 by re-running the ‘best’ of their historical ads. I put best in inverted commas because if this were a brand like Guinness a retrospective of their work would be a thing of pure and absolute joy. Not so Persil which has largely forgotten to make any memorable work while it has been doing such a good job washing our whites whiter.

Planners will tell you that these brands are rather cleverly exploiting the hoary old insight that in difficult times like war, natural disaster or in this case a slight downturn in the property market, consumers yearn for the comfort and certainty of the past and of brands that have been knocking around a bit. Hence the impetus to roll together a brand’s birthday with a sentimental trip down memory lane in advertising confections that can only be described at nostalgia blackmail.

Clearly a sense of a brand’s authenticity is important, especially when consumers can now spot a mile off a brand that has been conjured out of thin air in a NPD brainstorm. However, I struggle with the idea that recalling a time when contracting Tuberculosis was our national sport holds much value for brands seeking relevance to people’s lives today.

Indeed brand heritage is totally over rated and really rather dangerous. Take a brand like Hoover that basked in its history as the original vacuum cleaner for decades until a better product in the form of the Dyson came along and ate its lunch. Or for that matter the fact that according to WPP the world’s most valuable brand, Google, has absolutely no heritage whatsoever being only 11 years old. Indeed the most powerful online brands, the ones that we are really taking to our hearts and that have assumed an almost effortless a role in our lives owe their success to the way they allow us to do things that we have never been able to do before and not because the are as good today as they have always been.

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14 Replies to “Nostalgia Blackmail”

  1. Good article :) Thanks.
    This is very interesting to me, as in in my BA thesis I wrote that brands would soon start looking backwards in their advertising techniques. However, this prediction was due mostly to the fact that I couldn’t see where brands would go next (I didn’t see flash-mob coming), I was running out of room in my paper, and the financial crisis was just a glint in the Lehman Brothers eyes.
    Anywho, I wonder how long it will last, and what indeed will come next.

  2. I’m still waiting for a big brand to harness the PR opportunity that would be creating a modern day Brickad or Ghost Sign (as they’re doing in USA). We’re currently working on a project to create an archive of these from across the country. This is being co-ordinated via Flickr and interestingly Hovis were one of the biggest proponents of the medium.
    See for more.
    Quite a few from Hovis in this video:
    And here’s what they’re doing with it in USA:

  3. I don’t think the recession has even started yet but nobody has responded “really what makes you say that”. I should write a post about it but no one will thank me.

  4. What a waste of time read. You’re better than this.
    Conflating two ‘trends’ but with only one set of examples (bar Mars – and Hovis were surely pre-recession, esp. given production schedules)- is shocking.
    The anniversary celebrators aren’t ‘on trend’ it’s just an accident of the calendar. The quality of output and claim is, well, less of an accident.
    But hardly worth a post. Sorry.

  5. I think to call Hoover’s anialation at the hands of Dyson is a bit short sighted.
    Hoover failed to spot the brilliance of Dyson’s product when he offered it to them. Then followed infinite short sighted business decisions that really killed them (from the same people that brought you the worst promotion in British history):
    – Ignoring a significantly better product in the market
    – Putting out a terrible half assed rushed copy of the Dyson instead of inventing something to compete
    – In doing so rip off patents and cause huge negative PR
    Heritage myopia was just one thing that screwed them.
    Too many brands are rushing for nostalgia, but let’s not forget the Coca Cola’s, AT&T’s, McDonalds, etc etc that make up much of that list.

  6. “I think to see Hoover’s anhialation at the hands of Dyson as simply a product of heritage basking is a bit short sighted.”
    Is what I meant to start with.

  7. When age ladders to experience, and not just nostalgia, then bring it on.
    Otherwise, save it for the corporate induction video. There are only a handful of brands whose history lends itself to a good yarn that has interest beyond the category.

  8. Consumer confidence is rock-bottom.
    Betrayed by insitutions that we put our faith, trust, and money into.
    Even those we should be able to trust most – our country’s leaders – have done us over.
    I like the idea of brands trying to remind people that they have been there for us, enjoyed the good times with us, and survived the bad. I feel reassured knowing this (despite the fate of Lehman Brothers and co)
    What I don’t agree with is how they’ve wrapped this up in an irrelevant anniversary message. Age is a blunt tool for measuring experience.

  9. I have a nasty feeling that at least some of this is driven by the need to support the brand whilst not incurring the cost of shooting new footage. A re-run of old Persil/Milky Bar/Milky Way ads costs less than a shoot and reduces the agency fee.

  10. i think that the brands just projecting their own nostalgic feelings for the time when consumer was still innocent and ad-illiterate ;)

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