29 November 2011

The Selling Power of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a common house guest this time of year. We pull out boxes of ornaments wrapped in mildewed tissue and remember the stories that accompany each as we hang them on tree branches, some fake, some real, and listen to Christmas carols or sip hot chocolate. We anticipate the two biggest eating holidays of the year, thinking about all of our favorites that mom or grandma will make and that we only get to indulge on an annual basis. Green bean casserole and sweet potatoes with little marshmallows, pecan pie and eggnog are just a few of the small splurges we save for this heady time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Despite new technology and even newer sensibilities that might eschew nostalgia and tradition, retailers bank on our adherence to these annual rituals. National and local stores make a pretty hefty bet at the start of their fiscal year that a majority of their money will be made in these four to six weeks and then they spend inordinate amounts of advertising dollars making sure we spend, spend, spend. And what’s their biggest selling point?
Preserve old memories, make new ones, add a new ingredient to your family recipe – these messages assail us this time of year, telling us why we need another version of the ornament we cherish, in spite of the fact that the new, shiny one just unwrapped from its factory plastic carries no memories with it.
But this ability to cash in on our sense of nostalgia extends far beyond the retail space. The opening this past weekend of The Muppets drives home exactly how much stock we place in nostalgia. Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear are relics of a simpler time, a less cynical version of America when we looked to entertainment to entertain with a nod and a wink, not a slap and a curse word. There was a time when a cream pie in the face or a water squirting boutineer was high comedy. Speculation abounded before the movie’s release if the Muppets could be updated for today’s modern sensibility while still maintaining the kid-friendly, family-friendly feel of its original. New Flash: If it weren’t possible to update humor to appeal to both kids and adults through a primarily kid-focused medium, Pixar would be in Chapter 11.
It would have been a huge win for nostalgia, tradition, the Muppets and Jason Segel if the movie had won the box office on opening weekend. Unfortunately, there are some sparkly vampires who beat them to the multiplex and tween girls with enough disposable income to see Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One a dozen of times in a two day span. Grossing $42 million in its opening weekend is a respectable showing for a movie with Muppets, Moopets and maniacal laughs, but maybe where they’ve really won the race is the reviews.
RottenTomatoes.com has The Muppets at 98% while Breaking Dawn is only tracking at 26%. Christopher Orr, movie critic for The Atlantic, sums it up this way: The chorus of one of the songs declares, ‘I’ve got everything that I need, right in front of me.’ For 120 minutes, that's precisely how I felt.” Glowing might be an understatement.
It’s nostalgia that’s keeping those felt beauties relevant, folks, not a hip soundtrack or sparkling social commentary (although any fan of the Muppets will tell you they excel at the latter). We’ve seen this nostalgia phenomenon keep brands in the limelight for years. Everything from Star Wars to Star Trek to Rainbow Brite has benefited from a strong nostalgic reaction that eventually pays off with a franchise resurgence.
And that’s why marketers and advertisers will continue to exploit that happy place in our heart where some of our fondest memories live. Because nostalgia sells. Anyone who tells you differently is obviously unsentimental and probably has a heart made of coal.
Or, they’re too young to know what nostalgia means. In which case, give them a few years and then see how they react to Dora, iCarly and the Wizards of Waverly Place.

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