Opinion

The Super Bowl’s ad line up proved nostalgia doesn’t have to make us cringe

If one thing was made clear from this year's Super Bowl ad line up, it's that nostalgic advertising is having a moment. Sixteen Corners' Mike Cardillo considers who nailed it - and who didn't.

Ah, nostalgia. The memory-seared taste of Sunny Boys, the smell of soggy chips freshly unwrapped from presumably unhygienic newspaper, the sound of spokey dokes clattering on your BMX. Yes, things really were better/simpler/easier then, right?

Nostalgia has become the prevailing brand tactic of the present day. Our movie theatres are subservient to it, our Netflix queues are clogged with it, and now our ad breaks are selling it.

Monday’s Super Bowl LII made one of the most compelling cases for nostalgia being so ‘now’. Ad break after ad break harkened back to the halcyon days of when we could ogle Cindy Crawford without thinking about #metoo, drink Coke without worrying about sugar, and listen to Aerosmith without being deeply embarrassed.

Coke’s spot, which is about as saccharine as the stuff it’s promoting, is new, albeit with a self-conscious connection to its groundbreaking “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” campaign from 1971. Which, unsurprisingly, was remastered and re-released a couple of years ago.

Ram Trucks even went as far as co-opting a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech, despite looking like the kind of automobile more likely to bear a Confederate Flag bumper sticker than liberate someone’s civil rights.

Super Bowl’s movie tie-ins were possibly even more flagrant, from Australia being happy to remind viewers of an out-dated vision of itself from the ‘80s, to yet another Star Wars prequel in Solo, to Mission Impossible: Fallout, the sixth film in a twenty-one year old series that’s a remake of a TV show from the ‘60s.

Even the undisputed winner of Super Bowl LII – other than the Eagles, obviously – Tide, ran the event’s most entertainingly original spots, whilst also inherently relying on our recollection of campaigns gone by.

It’s not a new tactic in our advertising or our culture, but there is a sense of it now dominating the conversation.

There will always be a segment of society so enamoured with things of the past that they are willed back into existence. Netflix’s homebrand “Originals” label includes full-fledged revivals of Full House, Gilmore Girls, and Arrested Development, not to mention the return of TV legends like Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. To pigeonhole them as mere nostalgia-panderers would be to do them a disservice, but there’s no denying it’s an important part of their content strategy.

So much so, that even their brand new properties can be deeply indebted to nostalgia. The success of Stranger Things has proved that enormously derivative entertainment can strike a valuable chord. The show trades heavily on contemporaneous references to the movies, music and fashion of the ‘80s, and yet connects that nostalgic pang to characters who are brilliantly cast (including, let’s not forget, Tide’s current MVP David Harbour).

And despite some broken character and story logic, it’s been enough of a watershed moment to embed itself hugely in our culture.

So why this reverence for the past?

Nostalgia is built on moments – fragmentary, fleeting sensations that conjure a more innocent connection to the world and its pleasures. It represents a safe re-visioning of the past, with edges sanded and rose-tints applied, such that “a walk down memory lane tends to avoid the unpleasant stuff and favour the sweet and simple things that everyone misses”, according to Robert Klara.

Which is why it’s so attractive to brands and movie studios. Nostalgic marketing takes the emotional shortcut of evoking a past, warm feeling, and plugging it directly into a brand’s identity.

And in a modern landscape of complex social, environmental, political and sexual movements, the past can offer a reassuring glimpse of a time before global warming, cryptocurrency crashes, and presidents having unfettered access to Twitter.

It is, in a word, safer.

Safer to drive in the slipstream of pre-loved, pre-validated sentiments than to craft something daringly new. The social media highway is already littered with dumpster fires of brands vainly attempting to attach themselves to current issues, whether it be changing the date or nondescript, nonspecific marches of attractive multicultural people. So why not avoid the complicated present altogether?

The problem is, as Devin Faraci notes, that “the sheer amount of nostalgia in which we traffic has absolutely devalued nostalgia in general… I don’t understand how someone can be nostalgic for Star Wars if Star Wars never goes away.” Nostalgia is the ouroboros of our time.

Recent campaigns like the one for MoneySuperMarket – which inexplicably mashes together He-Man AND Dirty Dancing for no discernible reason – are part of the problem. The spot received notable attention online for its ability to name-check two things that people recognise, but how many of those same people could connect it to whatever the hell MoneySuperMarket actually is?

Nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia is not a workable solution.

It’s only when brands effectively connect nostalgia to something presently relevant, or ingeniously recontextualise it (as Tide did) that it actually works. Derek Horn writes that “the brands best leveraging nostalgia bring back what you fell in love with in the past, but promise new value that wasn’t possible in their heyday”.

It’s something to be treated with respect, because nostalgia is, ultimately, a signifier of our identity. When tapped into correctly, it sees our past thrillingly rush to reconnect with our present in a way that somehow – fleetingly – makes sense of who we are. It can be a sensation, like déjà vu, that momentarily both tips our world upside down, and makes it all click. It’s the sense that we’ve been here before… but not quite like this.

In a world of increasing political and moral complexity, that can be enormously reassuring. Because nostalgia, executed well, reminds us that sometimes the only thing we can reliably look forward to, is looking back.

Mike Cardillo is co-founder and ECD of video production company Sixteen Corners.

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