Stuart Elliott: Advertisers Adapting Nostalgic Appeals for Contemporary Consumers

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
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A Beatles song offers perhaps the most concise explanation of why nostalgia works so well as a marketing tactic: "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now they look as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday." When times are tough, when things get bad, it's human nature to gaze back fondly at eras that seem less tumultuous. The impulse may not be the most logical response to real-time, real-world problems -- another lyric from "Yesterday," "Now I need a place to hide away," suggests it could be futile -- but it's understandable.

When the global financial crisis threatened the American economy, Madison Avenue unleashed a wave of nostalgic ads that lasted well into the recovery. Some even went so far as to invoke the Great Depression, the most miserable period the nation has endured in modern times, complete with photographs of the Dust Bowl and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now, a bitterly fought presidential election, with a spate of content that would be rated "X" by the MPAA, has inspired hordes to head back into the past for a few moments of respite. (Though, come to think of it, one candidate has made nostalgia the central focus of his campaign: "Make America Great Again.")

Advertisers, marketers and the media are eager to help out those seeking escape in bygone days. In movie theaters, there are and will be remakes and reboots of films such as Ghostbusters, The Magnificent Seven, Mary Poppins and Splash. On video, there are and will be series that revive Boy Meets World, Full House, Gilmore Girls, Lethal Weapon, MacGyver, 24, Twin Peaks and The X-Files, along with a slew of shows using time travel as plot devices, among them DC's Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash and Timeless.

The most nostalgic realm of all may be the musical commercial. There are spots featuring songs from the 1950s, such as an Avis commercial that uses "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees. There are spots featuring songs from the 1960s, such as "You Don't Own Me," in a commercial for the 2017 Toyota Corolla; "I Will Follow You," in a commercial for the iPhone 7; and Tony Bennett's version of "Put on a Happy Face" from "Bye Bye Birdie," in a commercial for Michelob Ultra.

And there are spots featuring songs from the 1970s, such as an election-themed commercial for the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee that uses the song "If You Want To Sing Out" by Cat Stevens and a commercial for the new Google Pixel phone that uses the song "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed.

In many instances, however, the nostalgic appeals are being reworked for contemporary audiences, particularly to try reaching the Millennial consumers so avidly sought by marketers. For instance, neither the Toyota nor the iPhone commercials use the original versions of their '60s songs; the tunes are replaced with versions by current-day acts.

And a campaign for Gatorade that was introduced during the summer, themed "Incredible is inevitable," offers a rap-infused update of a song from -- yes -- 1937, by George and Ira Gershwin. The commercials restage the song, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" -- from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie "Shall We Dance" -- as "Let's run the whole thing back," celebrating how in sports, it's hard work and practice that make for amazing feats. Instead of "You say ee-ther and I say eye-ther; you say nee-ther and I say nigh-ther," there are lyrics such as "You say unbelievable, I say achievable; you say incredible, I say inevitable."

Likewise, venerable brand icons and pitchbeasts are getting makeovers to make them potentially more relevant to today's shoppers. The redesigned characters include E.B. the Energizer bunny, in new ads by Camp & King, and Tony the Tiger, for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, in new ads by Leo Burnett.

The most notable example of capitalizing on nostalgia to re-present a vintage brand mascot is what Yum Brands calls the "Re-Colonization" of KFC, in a campaign by Wieden & Kennedy. The fact that most present-day consumers don't remember the KFC founder and symbol, Colonel Harland Sanders, is subtly spoofed by using multiple actors and comedians to portray him in a series of spots.

The counterfeit colonels so far are Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton and, the latest, Vincent Kartheiser; extra points if you recall Kartheiser was a prominent member of the cast of the seminal series about the ad business, "Mad Men."

It's only a matter of time, I imagine, before the agency and KFC bring in a well-known actress to play the character. On the other hand, that might create more of a stir than a woman running for President; just imagine all the hats proclaiming, "Make Colonel Sanders Male Again."

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