Have we hit peak nostalgia?

After years of nostalgia-based cultural touchstones, some in the industry say the pendulum could soon swing the other way.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Wherever you look, you can find it. Binge-watching Netflix’s Addams Family spinoff Wednesday? Humming along to Jack Harlow’s “First Class,” which samples Fergie’s “Glamorous”? Munching on a McDonald’s Happy Meal designed specifically for adults? Congratulations. You, too, have succumbed to nostalgia.

In recent years, there’s been an abundance of sentimental media that asks you to remember that?  Whether that’s in the form of reboots, remakes, or revivals on TV or retro ads and logos, programming heads and marketing head honchos seem dead set on embracing the halcyon days. All the while, Gen Z trendsetters are embracing all things retro, from Kate Bush to bucket hats.

Anyone vying for consumer attention knows there’s something powerful about nostalgic media. As Don Draper once put it, it’s the twinge in your heart that’s more powerful than memory alone. Nostalgia is delicate but potent. And it really works to win over the masses.

“There’s a universality and emotionality to nostalgia,” Matt Feniger, director of cultural insights at United Talent Agency, told Marketing Brew. “In a time where everything seems so divisive and emotionally charged, nostalgia is positively connecting us over a shared experience.”

But there’s also a risk of dipping too often into the well of past ideas, and after years of nostalgia-laden media, some experts said we’re long overdue for a shift.

“I’ve been talking about nostalgia with clients for the past couple of years, and I feel like I’m getting tired of telling them about it,” said Molly Barth, a senior cultural strategist at the consultancy sparks & honey. “And they’re probably getting tired of me telling them about it.”

Not again

You don’t have to look far to see how deep the obsession with nostalgia runs, and if you’re commissioning programming, good luck not finding some sort of reboot or revival.

“We don’t have to go look for reboots right now, because producers are bringing them to us on a daily basis,” admitted David Eilenberg, VP and head of originals at Roku, who previously executive produced the Queer Eye reboot for Netflix. “It is what’s in the zeitgeist.”

There are a few reasons behind the obsession. Making TV and movies is expensive, and as media execs grow increasingly risk-averse and cost-conscious, programming based on proven storylines is often seen as a safe bet. The shows being greenlit prove it: In the first half of this year, nearly two-thirds of the new scripted originals in the US were borne out of franchises or adapted from pre-existing IP, according to Ampere Analysis.  

“It’s easy to justify, knowing that you’ll have that audience who will show up,” Feniger said.

Plus, programming rooted in existing stories can help win over audiences overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content to choose from. “These familiar narratives, or IP, or content become a filter for audiences to orient themselves,” said Shelby Bier, a marketing analyst at United Talent Agency.

Good days

There’s something else you can blame for the surge in nostalgia-based content: the pandemic. The rose-colored glasses of the past can soothe people distressed by current events, Barth explained, especially for younger audiences who may want to experience what feels like a simpler time through media.

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“A lot of [Gen Z] have not a lot of hope for the future, not a lot of hope for how the country is going, not a lot of hope for how the climate is deteriorating,” she said. “Looking backward is a whole lot more appealing than looking forward to the future.”

Advertisers eager to follow cultural trends have followed suit, looking for ways to tap into nostalgic media in whatever ways they can. Brands involved in the Netflix hit series Stranger Things, which itself is drenched in odes to the 1980s, have released limited-edition shoes, bikes, drinks, and other retro merchandise as a tribute. Last year, Pepsi released vintage-inspired soft drinks in an ad featuring Doja Cat singing “You’re the One That I Want” from the 1970s musical Grease.

Often, brands have tried to cash in on the nostalgia craze by temporarily bringing discontinued products back to shelves. In 2020, General Mills revived Dunkaroos, i.e., the pinnacle of ’90s kids snacks, while Oreo briefly brought back Cakesters this year—and promoted the return with a Blockbuster storefront.

The best way for brands to tap into nostalgia, experts said, is to blend old and new. “You want that excitement and hype surrounding what’s next, paired with something comforting and familiar,” Bier said.

Over it

There’s some evidence that nostalgia may not be nearly as potent as it once was. In the entertainment space, several recent reboots have received poor reviews, and some of the most acclaimed recent programming successes, including Severance (Apple TV+) and The White Lotus (HBO Max), are entirely new.

“You can’t just take [an existing] title and then assume it’s gonna deliver for you,” Roku’s Eilenberg said. “The thing that defines your service is usually something that’s completely out of left field.”

There’s plenty to be said about the continued business case for nostalgia, including the still-uncertain state of the world and the somewhat bottomless appetite for comfort-food programming, Bier said. Try as we might, that’s not going away anytime soon.

But some recent Hollywood trends may point toward a more original future. Feniger highlighted the box-office success of Everything Everywhere All At Once as evidence that there’s a financial case to be made for new stories.

“There’s always a pendulum swing,” he said. “While nostalgia has been so big, there’s going to be a swing back to craving something original.”

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