Viral content and Nostalgia: Why Vintage, Retro And The Good Old Days Are Here To Stay

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Dear Photograph is a beautiful and haunting site based on one simple idea: ask contributors to “take a picture of a picture, from the past, in the present.” This quickly becomes viral content based on nostalgia. The posted images are often bitter sweet, and always charming and heartwarming. The concept reminds us that the internet, no matter how ubiquitous, is relentless in its ability to create new art forms from the simplest of ideas.

But more importantly, Dear Photograph, created by Kitchener, Ont.-based Taylor Jones, taps into the tried-and-true scheme of tugging at heart strings to get people to notice: juxtapose our nostalgic memories and personal history against the mundane, less glamorous version of ourselves in the Now.

The use of nostalgia – that strong yearning to return to the comfort of home – as a marketing hook is nothing new. Take an iconic brand like Coca Cola. Coke is famous for exploiting its rich history and heritage to market itself. The 90-calorie mini can it introduced a few years ago is a good example. At the time, the package design was described as a perfect mix of brand narcissism and packaging nostalgia, “as if the Coke [can] is longing for a time when there was more poetry in the tactile interaction between the vessel and its holder.” They know how this viral content can spread.

And of course, the use of nostalgia in television has evolved into an art form. Happy Days in the 70s, The Wonder Years in the late 80s, That 70s Show in the 90s and 2000s, and the hugely popular AMC series Mad Men, take us back to a time when things were not only different, but simpler, better, and in delightful way, much more real and crude. As consumers we can’t seem to get enough, even if most of us are far too young to relate to those good old days in the first place.

Nostalgia marketing endeavours to give consumers the impression that life was better in the past. Life’s major transitions (from childhood to pubescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from single to married, from spouse to parent, etc.), can be difficult and even traumatic. But nostalgia is a beautiful filter. It allows us to remember mostly the sunny highlights, the younger or thinner versions of ourselves, our raw potential. If it’s true that life can squeeze out the best in us, then nostalgia lets us hit the resent button, even it’s for a moment.

In the digital age, the use of nostalgia is proving to be just as powerful. After Dear Photograph was named one of Time.com’s 50 Best Websites of 2011, and the #1 Website of 2011 by The Early Show on CBS, site creator Taylor Jones said that “everything comes full circle…and the whole technology thing is still so new and we’re still so young with it, that being able to mix it with nostalgia is a good and fun mix.”

As it turns out, we can’t seem to get enough of feeling nostalgic, even if it means resorting to manufactured nostalgia. Instagram nails this on the head, allowing users to mimic the past through a myriad of “filters” that make mundane images look like they were taken with your grandfather’s Kodak Graflex Supergraphic. Chalk it up to our accelerated lives, mass-produced everything, or the loneliness of our digital personas, we long for simpler times. All this might also explain pop culture’s never-ending obsession with remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups.

A few years ago, Pilot PMR was hired to help introduce Old Dutch, the iconic potato chip brand available only in a small number of Western Canadian and American markets, to consumers in Ontario, Quebec and Eastern Canada. Our launch strategy was pure Nostalgia 101: Take a product that is fondly remembered by transplanted Western Canadians as a thing of the past, and position its introduction to the rest of Canada as a unique and special moment, a chance to taste the fleeting past once again, and of course an opportunity for newbies to taste for themselves what the fuss was all about. It was a small campaign, but our efforts were very successful, resulting in dozens of consumer news stories and more than 10 million audience impressions over a number of months.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells inspired retro-futurism and steampunk in response to what was then a future unknown, but one in which technology and human innovation would turn the unimaginable into reality. In other words, they imagined what the past might look like if the future had happened sooner. The use of nostalgia as a hook lets marketers do the opposite: take something from the past that consumers view as idyllic or romantic, paint it with a fresh veneer, and get them to stand up and take notice.

Looking for a truly sweet helping of nostalgia candy? Check out Dads are the Original Hipsters.

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