by Josh Kimball
Digitally enabled by easily accessible evocations of their past, consumers’ very memories are now being relentlessly commoditized. Images of our weddings and graduations, memories of kids’ births and grandparents’ faces now get snugly wrapped by ads for automobiles and toothpaste. The commercialization of our personal and collective pasts has significant cultural and marketing implications. As a matter of fact, it’s now doing what was heretofore unthinkable: It’s killing nostalgia dead.
The death of nostalgia
Nostalgia’s place at the 2012 Super Bowl, advertising’s annual pageant of artistry and excess, was prime and primal. Met Life evoked the childhood Saturdays of millions of adult viewers, trotting out the animated buddies of half a dozen decades past. Charlie Brown, Jane Jetson and Scooby-Do all hammed it up in one past-and-present, real-and-animated mise-en-scène meant to soften viewers up to review their insurance policies. Clint Eastwood, in a halftime pitch for Chrysler, rasped about America’s glorious heritage. Even Ferris Bueller was there, selling cars. He’s a lot older now, and he drives a Honda.
That’s just one of the ways the cultural nostalgia machine works. A macro-nostalgia movement has long been afoot, as well. This one’s less about personal pasts — instead, it evokes entire eras gone by. You see it every time you stand behind a guy with a Civil War-era mustache at the coffee shop. Or whenever you click across a lovingly made, high-definition video of an Industrial Age manufacturing process for leather boots. Which is to say, if you’re paying attention to the culture, you see it all the time.
This nostalgic bear hug isn’t new. But nostalgia’s primacy as a creative force in the culture has swelled enormously in the past decade. (Exhibit A: Look at Instagram, doused in the faded tones of old photographs and the picture-sharing platform of choice for 24 million users across the planet. It started by selling instant nostalgia to consumers. Then, quickly, it turned to selling itself. To Facebook. For $1 billion.)
For a decade or more, nostalgia’s power has grown. Think, though, of those Super Bowl ads — and of the thousands of guys in Ulysses S. Grant beards watching them — as part of nostalgia’s grand mal. Because the world is tilting now. The future’s about to matter again.
The age of digital accumulation
We live in what futurist Bruce Sterling calls an “age of digital accumulation.” Evidence of the lives we live piles up behind us on digital platforms. The best example of digital accumulation, and how it affects our relationship with our past, is Facebook and its new Timeline. The Timeline makes extremely personal images — faces, places, clothing, hairstyles — from our own years past immediately accessible. What Facebook in general, and the Timeline specifically, offers is shortcuts to consumers’ own memories, carefully tagged, chronologically ordered: And snugly wrapped with advertisements — you see them framing the page each time you page through a friend’s wedding pictures or look back at the digital remnants of your own kid’s last birthday party.
Further, each year, more of us make public to services like Facebook more and more information. Online privacy wariness has given way to greater openness by consumers about what we’re willing to share. Some of that openness is consciously chosen and mindful. Other data sharing by consumers is done either grudgingly or through ignorance. But no matter why it happens, for a vast swath of people, the amount of personal information that’s available, the amount of their lives and pasts that’s instantly accessible, increases by the month and the year.
The elongated present
Constantly, curious new users open up platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to serve as micro-moment escapes from their daily grind. And though social media has up to now often been called an “immediate gratification,” the escape onto Facebook’s Timeline or through a portal of one of Pinterest’s pinboards is often one that leads not to the immediate present but instead leads, immediately, to the past.
One reason that Instagram achieved incredible success is that it neatly and effortlessly commoditizes the most accessible abettors of our memories. It helps users overlay meaning to the banal snapshots of today by effortlessly evoking earlier eras. (Or effortlessly elongating the present: The very concept and importance of memory shifts when you know that the artifacts of tomorrow’s anniversary dinner will look just like it’s 1979.)
We know the faded colors of past photographs are important, because they exist, in real life, in real photo books. And we transfer some of that weight to these Instagram images too, well before their zeros and ones even dry.
The future’s not gone yet
After years of using the past as a creative font, and of having nostalgia as the go-to emotion to chase down, many creators who apprehend this early shift in consumers’ relationship with our memories are starting to look for inspiration from other sources.
And they’re looking to the future. One movement, called the New Aesthetic, is “an eruption of the digital into the physical” (Wired.com, April 2012). Bruce Sterling describes its genesis: It’s “a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet.” Sterling’s essay describing the New Aesthetic is worth a read, as is this response, if only to ground curious readers in one future-focused creative movement.
The New Aesthetic is a single, easily graspable example of a creative movement that’s focused less on reinterpreting (and commodifying) the past and more on forging a provocative present that uses the possibilities of the future as an active resource. Evidence abounds that creative vigor drawn from ideas of the future is beginning to jostle with, if not already supplant, creative movements rooted in nostalgia.
Marketing implications: The commodification of memory and the path to the future
The first thing marketers can do is acknowledge the commodification of nostalgia. We can look at people’s relationships to their own increasingly online lives and understand that when the past is both easily accessible and wrapped with advertising, it loses emotional currency.
That doesn’t mean nostalgia is obliterated — not at all. People will always be moved by evocations of the past. But it does mean that nostalgia becomes a blunter, deader tool. It means that people, more and more, crave more true connections to the past rather than confections. And it means that the future returns as a source of creative vigor.
The second thing marketers can do is have a future in mind, or at least an idea of what a future or two might look like.
Today’s easy nostalgia pitch — the one that makes potential buyers feel warm and fuzzy in order to prep them to make a purchase — won’t go away. But it degrades in efficacy as people more and more see their memories attached to commercial ventures. Its pitch still rings, but it rings hollow. Acknowledging the deflated currency of the past is a long step toward surviving and thriving in this changed world of consumer values.
Marketers need not ignore their own compelling backstory, though. Provenance and heritage matter. Quality is still important. As are consumers’ memories. But brands can begin to respect their buyers’ past more, as well as forefront their customers’ future story. Especially their immediate future. Shift the focus away from luring buyers with the tender glow of decades past and toward igniting some tiny spark of hope or satisfaction after they’ve made a worthwhile purchasing (or not purchasing!) decision.