Forget sex: Nostalgia gives you return on investment

Will Railton
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Sex no longer sells, it seems (Source: Getty)
Arresting though they may be, sex and violence do not sell products. When confronted with graphic material, participants in a study by Ohio State University were likely to become so distracted that it impaired their “memory, attitudes and buying intentions for advertised products,” according to professor Brad Bushman.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, fares more favourably. Exponents include Coca Cola, Hovis and even Sony, which depicted a young gamer advancing through the stages of adolescence alongside Sony’s various PlayStation consoles in its 2013 UK spot for the PS4. But why are marketers able to exploit our rose-tinted spectacles so effectively?

A study by researchers from the University of Southampton, Grenoble Ecole de Management and the University of Minnesota found that evoking memories of the past heightens our sense of “social connectedness”, making us place greater importance on relationships with others and old-fashioned values. Our “ability to prioritise and keep control over [our] money becomes less pressing”. In an age of one-click-to-buy, moments of weakness are low hanging fruit for marketers.

But other studies paint a more unsettling picture. A 2012 report by Euromonitor International found that the emotional response fostered by nostalgia is particularly effective in times of “economic or political uncertainty”. It cites the aftermath of 9/11, the global recession and the Fukushima nuclear disaster as periods when nostalgic marketing was particularly effective.

Recently, brands have been tapping into nostalgic longing for their own adverts. The return of Cadbury’s “Milk Tray Man”, who made his come-back this month after a 13 year absence, and a new incarnation of the Tesco family, begs the question: are the UK’s creative agencies heading the way of Hollywood, where remakes gross the most and command large budgets?

Mark Boyd, founder of Gravity Road, is sceptical. “The past is always informing culture today, and it has great stories to tell which are universal and relevant today.” But young people are unlikely to connect with original characters they don’t know, he thinks. “And on a business level, companies are likely to have different agencies now to those who made the original work. New agencies won’t want to stand in their predecessors’ shadow. Even reusing old footage is difficult because of rights issues.”

Adverts predating the actual experience of young adults will only penetrate “if there is some cultural reference point to which young people can link them”, says Heather Andrew, chief executive of consumer neuroscience research specialist Neuro-Insight. If they have positive perceptions of the 60s as a decade, and an ad is recognisably from that period, it can benefit from a “halo effect”, she explains, even if they hadn’t been alive to see it.