The only way capitalism can survive is if we’re all consumers. We constantly have to buy new things so new things can be made and the system reproduces itself, spinning into a showboat auction of who can sell the most stuff. There are whole fields of study dedicated to making consumers purchase the most stuff, which is a somewhat frightening thought given all the consequences. One way to win that profit race to the top is to figure out what consumers want to buy, and the easiest way of doing that is ensuring them of what they want to buy.
For instance, have you noticed all the sequels and remakes that Hollywood has been pumping out? We’ve just gotten a whole slew of new Star Wars films, Disney is releasing all their old films but with live animation this time (Jungle Book, Lion King, Mulan, etc), kids sequels like Toy Story 4 or Frozen 2, the list could go on. It’s not just direct sequels either, symbols and themes from the past appear in supposedly original work. Take for instance the Netflix series Stranger Things, which although an original work plays heavily into 80’s nostalgia; same with the much of our pop music, in which I’ve noticed New Wave motifs being played into heavily.
I’ve heard the phrase that “Hollywood is running out of ideas” but that’s hardly satisfying. What the media manufacturers are doing is far more calculated and in fact quite intentional.
At the base level nostalgia serves as a tool to remind ourselves about the past in a romanticized fashion that’s actually removed from the reality of what was. Like when conservatives talk about “the good ol’ days” as if those were a thing, nostalgia is the trigger that combines us with our past and adds an extra layer of glorification. It gives a greater sense of meaning to what we are doing by connecting us with the past. With nostalgia we aren’t just consuming, we are supposed to be reliving how good we thought it used to be.
I’ll be honest, when the new Star Wars films came out I went and saw them. I didn’t read any reviews because I assumed I knew what I was getting (before I realized they weren’t any good). I’d grown up with the movies and the video games and the action figures even though I wasn’t even alive when the originals were out yet I still had a sense of belonging with the brand. That’s why I unquestioningly went and saw them, it was more a nostalgia factor than a real decision. As humans we tend to like things that are familiar to us, it takes less mental processing than something that’s completely alien to us. That’s why it’s so easy for nostalgia to hook us: it’s familiar, we get a renewed sense of belonging, and the gratification of “belonging” to a brand for so long.
Capitalists use the nostalgia factor as a way of ensuring people will buy their products. Perhaps it’s retro clothes coming back in popularity, styles of architecture or building design, or our mass media: it’s all meant to sell. Did we need another Star Wars series? No, but what Disney needed was asses in the seats and a whole new generation of kids to buy Star Wars merchandise. It panders to both young and old. The old want a sense nostalgia, and the young want to be a part of symbols and cultural references that’s been around their entire lives and been engrained into the culture.
Marketing science really is a sinister human creation, and nostalgia is just one of their tools, albeit an increasingly popular one. Much of the popular business press has already written their praise for nostalgia marketing, such as Forbes and The Business Times. But there is also the academic understanding that falls behind this marketing technique. There’s a digestible academic paper on the subject I want to highlight titled “A Review of Nostalgic Marketing” that goes through the details of how companies target consumers.
The paper rightly claims that “All merchandise can do nostalgia marketing” and breaks down the four target groups and their corresponding type of nostalgia. Those being:
- The experienced old.
- Groups of special experience: people that have particular backgrounds that converge with others.
- Groups away from previous environments: people whose living environment changes or their departure causes longing.
- Young people.
The marketing of nostalgia to young people is especially gruesome. The author Rubo Cui states that when marketing past experiences to young people “although not personally experienced, they still will be a choice of their trendy consumption” and the very act will “provide a big stage for the prevalence of nostalgic marketing.” Children are perhaps the group most targeted currently, because if you can hook children into a brand while they’re young then you can achieve not only brand loyalty but you can offer them images of their nostalgic youth while they’re older. An example I can think of is the playgrounds built onto McDonald’s restaurants starting in the 70’s. Not only did it give children something to do while their parents ordered food, it create happy memories for those kids to carry on into adulthood while they continue to order McDonald’s. Of course the playgrounds failed for a number of reasons, but the principle is still there.
However, the author of the paper (in their poorly translated English) gives the example of Coca-Cola as the nostalgic achievement. There are many ways which this is true, but our complex memory ensures that all types of nostalgia are available for marketers to target consumers.
Our culture and products are nothing more than a conveyer belt for profit under capitalism, and there’s little we can do about it. We could do a theoretical strike against these nostalgic money grabs but what good would that do? They’ll just give us something else to consume, and it’s permeated almost every marketed product there would be no use. I don’t expect consumer conditions to improve under capitalism, instead we should just be aware of the many ways that corporations target us and do what we can to overcome. So, go see the sequel to that movie or buy a Coca-Cola or get yourself a vinyl player, it won’t make a difference.