Carmen Beer
Mar 30, 2017

Nostalgia’s comfort is shaping contemporary culture

From 'Stranger Things' to Nintendo's NES Classic Edition to binge-watching 'Friends', people are taking comfort in the familiar. But is such recycling a safe marketing strategy?

Carmen Beer
Carmen Beer

Forbes called 2016 the year of mass nostalgia, and indeed it was filled with revivals of ’80s, ’90s and even early 2000s pop culture icons—Ghostbusters, Netflix’s Stranger Things and Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, to name a few. But why now? And what does our appetite for nostalgia say about contemporary society?

Nostalgia is comfortable

Apple celebrates the iPhone’s 10th anniversary this year, but already life without smartphones seems unimaginable. The Internet and digital platforms have changed our lives dramatically and accelerated our pace of living, which makes us sometime wonder if life wasn’t easier when things were analogue. In this context, the transition decades ( ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s) have a romanticised appeal to generations that remember life pre-Internet.

The creative industry has understood that this time-frame is alluring and has been spoon-feeding ‘comfort content’ to nostalgic crowds through tributes to iconic pop culture symbols. Stranger Things is a great example. The sci-fi drama’s collage of ’80s references to films like E.T., Alien, The Goonies and Star Wars hooked viewers who were exposed to the originals. Coca-Cola, renowned for its successful nostalgia marketing strategies, saw the opportunity for product placement of vintage Coke cans in the narrative, making the brand part of the setting and its associated coolness.

With similar consumers in mind, Nintendo launched a mini NES Classic Edition just before Christmas last year. The console perfectly replicates the vintage look of the original, while adding modern features, and sold out quickly to become a collectors’ item almost overnight (even though Nintendo’s strategy to purposefully limit stocks wasn't well received).

However, Friends probably embodies this notion of ‘comfort content’ most pervasively. It first aired on US TV in 1994 and to this day it’s still broadcast worldwide. Over a decade after its launch it’s still remarkably popular, with broadcasters claiming that its audience share grows every year, appealing to teenagers who weren’t even born when the show first aired. The secret to this success seems to be the show’s depiction of universal truths about life in one’s 20s that speaks to people irrespective of their generation. Its optimistic tone is also an asset; set at a time before social networks, 9/11 or Trump, life seemed easier, simpler, and people more naïve.

It's not just about the old school fans

In 2015, sequels or reboots made up eight of the top 10 earners at the global box office, and 2016 also saw several comebacks, from Ghostbusters to The Jungle Book. Fans of the originals are often against comebacks, feeling they betray their sources and “crush cherished memories”. So, if it’s not the original (nostalgic) fans that are pining for them, why have there been so many?

The most obvious reason is that recycling successes is a fairly safe marketing strategy. It relies on successful formulas and recalling brands and audiences that were formed years ago.

Many of the reboots that came out in 2016 were deeply criticised despite box office success. Fox released The X-Files’ 10th season and guaranteed an 11th even though many fans wished it hadn’t been brought back. Netflix’s Full House spin-off was thrashed in reviews, but it registered one of Netflix’s largest audiences in the US, which saw its second and third seasons get the green light.

Yet, not all remakes are successful. Last year’s version of Ghostbusters flopped entirely. Replacing the roles of Bill Murray and his male co-stars with a female cast was seen as a bold choice that spoke to current issues, but the movie didn’t attract large crowds in the US and failed to please nostalgic fans. Public opinion agreed that it was no more than a bad copy and lacked the authenticity and fantasy that made the original an icon.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

While Hollywood remakes can easily fail to please the nostalgic fans they may be intended for, they can conquer new audiences across the globe that haven’t seen the original, and who run less of a risk of being disappointed. Independence Day: Resurgence, for instance, was “saved” by the Chinese box-office—China is the second largest movie market in the world and the original wasn’t screened there.

Reinterpreting the past shapes the present

Taking inspiration from work that already exists is fairly intrinsic to creative processes. It’s endemic to the digital age that people should look to the past for context, inspiration and references since today we have access like never before to a plenitude of archived digital content. In this context, it’s no surprise that we should see so much recycling of past work now—we reinterpret the past to give it an added layer of meaning in today’s world. The mash-ups, remixes and revivals we’re bombarded with are appealing because they carry with them layers of associations that have been contextualised in society before—entirely new music genres like hip-hop and electronic grew out of sampling and remixing.

The UN’s 2016 online campaign #WhatIReallyReallyWant is a great example of an iconic track that was reinterpreted to speak to current issues. The social-media campaign encouraged women to stand-up for themselves and successfully anchored itself on the Spice Girls’ hit ‘Wannabe’ to speak to feminism and quickly went viral. It turned what was a successful pop song in its day into a women’s rights anthem 10 years after it was launched with political undertones the song did not carry originally.

Pokémon Go’s recent success is also grounded in reinterpretation. Many have said that the app’s popularity was fuelled by nostalgic millennials. But, users’ profiles reveal that nostalgia doesn’t solely explain its success. Only a few gamers were original Pokémon fans. The one thing all players do have in common is a passion for gaming. So, it’s fair to say that beyond the nostalgia it stimulates in some, Pokémon Go is appealing because it’s a good game that’s highly addictive and uses innovative features such as geolocation and AR. Through nostalgia it intended to reach a pre-existing potential audience, but its roaring success comes from seamlessly bringing together past and present—reaching to the past for inspiration yet making it relevant to the current zeitgeist—striking a balance that pleased a huge and diverse group of people.

Creative content rooted in nostalgia is most successful when it turns to the past for inspiration and credibility, but doesn’t forget that it also has to be meaningful today. There’s nothing wrong with being haunted by content from the past as long as it also contributes and speaks to contemporary culture.

Carmen Beer is senior research executive at Flamingo in Sao Paulo

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