Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991 Pages 323-329
"THE GOOD OLD DAYS": OBSERVATIONS ON NOSTALGIA AND ITS ROLE IN CONSUMER BEHAVIOR
William J. Havlena, Rutgers University
Susan L. Holak, Rutgers University
Nostalgia--a longing to return home--was first described by Johannes Hofer in 1688. Recently it has received increased attention from marketers and advertisers. The literature on nostalgia from psychology and sociology is used to introduce a brief survey and description of the use of nostalgia in marketing and its impact on consumer behavior. Products and advertisements aimed at two broad market segments--"baby boomers" and senior citizens--are examined. Two types of nostalgic products and advertisements are noted: (1) products or messages drawn directly from the past and (2) new products and messages that create a "period" feeling. Based on these observations, the paper offers some suggestions for future research.
One notable trend as we leave the 1980's and enter the decade of the 90's is the increasing visibility of nostalgia--"a painful yearning to return home"--in marketing, advertising, and entertainment media. Despite the popularity of nostalgic products and messages, little research has studied nostalgia within the context of consumer behavior.
Nostalgia as an emotion contains both pleasant and unpleasant components. This "bittersweet" quality of the emotion is a distinguishing characteristic of nostalgia. It refers back to an earlier period in the individual's life and draws on biased or selective recall of past experiences.
This paper will review the concept of nostalgia and its history from its first appearance in 1688 in a paper by Johannes Hofer. It will then present some observations concerning nostalgia and illustrate them using current advertising and marketing examples.
DEFINITIONS OF AND PAST RESEARCH CONCERNING NOSTALGIA
What is Nostalgia?
The word "nostalgia" has a Greek derivation with two roots: "nostos" meaning to "return home or to one's native land" and "algos" referring to "pain, suffering, or grief" (Hofer 1688; Daniels 1985). This condition was first discussed by Johannes Hofer in his thesis which was presented to Johannes Harder, a Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine and Professor of Anatomy and Botany at the University of Alsace in 1688. Hofer's contribution was considered a key work in psychological and psychosomatic medicine for at least two reasons: (1) he was the first individual to describe nostalgia as a clinical condition, and (2) in his writing he gave credence to the effects of mind over body (Martin 1954).
Symptoms. Throughout history, nostalgia has been associated with a myriad of physiological and psychological symptoms. According to Hofer's dissertation (1688), sufferers "wander about sad," experience insomnia, suffer from fever, hunger, thirst, diminished senses, and a loss of strength. Given the medical paradigm involving humors popular at the time, Hofer contended that nostalgia resulted from thoughts of home due to animal spirits in the innermost parts of the brain. These spirits caused the blood to thicken and the heart to slow. It was thought that death could result unless the sufferer were somehow transported back to his or her home (Hofer 1688; Martin 1954). McCann (1941) wrote of physiological.symptoms affecting the respiratory and circulatory systems as well as other bodily functions. Psychological suffering was thought to take the form of loss of appetite, nausea, listlessness, fainting, and varied additional symptoms.
History. Although perhaps not documented in such an explicit manner as in Hofer's work, nostalgia has appeared in literature and poetry through the ages in references to homesickness. From Biblical psalms to the writings of Homer, Hippocrates, and Caesar, the yearning for one's home is a reoccurring motif (Martin 1954). Throughout history, nostalgia was known to adversely affect troops from Caesar's centurions of Helvetian Gaul, where the condition was called "la Maladie du Pays" (Hofer 1688), to soldiers in the more recent world wars (Martin 1954; Nawas and Platt 1965). All sorts of maladies and behaviors, including pyromania, were diagnosed as resulting from a nostalgic condition (Martin 1954). In more recent times, nostalgia or homesickness was listed among the standard medical diagnoses by the Surgeon General (Martin 1954). As Fodor (1950, p. 25) writes, "Nostalgia is not a mental disease but it may develop into a monomaniacal, obsessive mental state causing intense unhappiness and leading to a complete uprooting of a settled existence. It usually manifests itself in an intense desire to return to the country or town from where we came, or --- on more acute analysis --- to return to the home which we had left behind." It is no wonder then that the nostalgic condition is a major cause of freshman dropouts on the college campus (Nawas and Plau 1965). As noted by Beardsley Ruml [cited by Martin (1954)], "Nostalgia is older and more fundamental than human nature itself and all people of the world, all ages and all temperaments, weak and strong, are more or less susceptible to it." Authorities have even noted that symptoms which resemble those experienced by nostalgic humans are exhibited by animals (Martin 1954).
Despite its prevalence in history, however, relatively little formal study has been made of the condition. It is interesting to note that the few early cases and writings concerned displaced Swiss soldiers as discussed by Swiss authors almost exclusively, giving the early impression that this specific nationality was particularly nostalgia-prone (Martin 1954). According to Martin (1954, p. 94), "...We should note that although it had gone beyond the province of medicine, nostalgia never attracted the degree of scientific interest warranted by its universal occurrence." Nawas and Platt (1965, p. 51) corroborate this observation as follows, "It is rather curious that a phenomenon as pressing, as ubiquitous, and as little understood as nostalgia has received only passing attention from psychologists; in the last quarter century no more than six empirical studies have appeared on the subject."
Research in Clinical Psychology
Researchers in the clinical psychology field trace the cause of nostalgia to a human desire to return to the womb. Even Hofer contended that those stricken "do not know how to forget their mother's milk" (Martin 1954, p.94). In his psychoanalytic analysis, Fodor (1950) noted that humans sense that they had a safe, comfortable existence in their pre-natal stale. This perfect happiness appears symbolically in many forms and outlets, including Biblical teachings. According to Fodor (1950, p. 35), "The Biblical concept of Heaven is a projection of organismic memories of a Canaan flowing with milk and honey, where wants were satisfied without wanting, and where we reigned as kings and were the absolute center of the universe because nothing else seemed to exist, the post-natal world being as yet beyond comprehension." Freud maintained that nostalgia had a basis in adorned memories and dreams as noted by Daniels (1985, p. 379) who wrote, "Freud (1906) illustrates perhaps more simply the 'message of nostalgia': the desire to return to a hidden home, to monuments concocted of our wanderings through the half-forgotten memories of another time, festooned and elaborated by our present fantasies."
Recent Perspectives on Nostalgia
A more recent interpretation of nostalgia has altered considerably from its medical, often pathological, base to connote more of a sociological phenomenon. According to Davis (1979, p. 4), "Not only does the word nostalgia appear to have been fully 'demilitarized' and 'demedicalized' by now but, with its rapid assimilation into American popular speech since roughly the nineteen-fifties, it appears to be undergoing a process of 'depsychologization' as well." Given the meteoric increase in mobility in today's society, individuals are less attached to a country, town, or particular house than in the past. As a result, "homesickness" no longer applies in the same way when describing nostalgic emotion. Rather, from the sociological perspective, nostalgia allows human beings to maintain their identity in the face of major transitions which serve as discontinuities in the life cycle (e.g., the identity change from childhood to pubescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from single to married life, from spouse to parent, etc.). Not all past experiences or eras are equally likely to evoke nostalgic feelings. Nostalgia for adolescence and early adulthood appears to be stronger than for any other period. In addition, this tendency to engage in nostalgic feelings varies over the course of the individual's lifetime. "Nostalgia-proneness" has been hypothesized to peak as individuals move into middle age and during the "retirement" years.
Men have been deemed to be more nostalgic than women, given that in western culture they have until very recently experienced more life cycle discontinuities (Davis 1979). Other research implies that the character and subject matter of nostalgia for men and women may differ as well. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981), in their study of "special" objects, found that older subjects and women were more likely than men and children to cherish objects as a source of memories. While men tended to mention objects of action (such as sports equipment, televisions, and vehicles), women tended to mention objects of contemplation (such as photographs, artwork, plates, and textiles). Although not examined by the authors, one might expect similar gender differences in the types of stimuli that evoke nostalgic feelings.
Aggregation. Given these universal yet individual transitions, there exist personal or private and collective or societal realms of nostalgic experience (Davis 1979). The intersubjectivity element associated with nostalgia is noted by Daniels (1985, p. 372) who wrote, "An inquiry concerning nostalgia is difficult -- more than some experiences, it can be peculiarly private: what is nostalgic for me may leave another indifferent." Given the structure of society, its values, and conventions, we experience life's discontinuities along with others who are our contemporaries. As a result, there is a "collective identity" among members of the same generation in terms of their nostalgic experiences (Davis 1979, p. 101). It is possible for these two levels to overlap and be intertwined as evidenced in the following example (Davis 1979, p. 124), "Thus, a nostalgic summoning of 'everybody's favorite song of 1943' (essentially a collectively oriented symbol) may inwardly-shade off into some very private reminiscences of a particular romance in a particular place on a particular day, replete with special fragrances, sounds and visual traces."
Relevant Past. A key element defining nostalgia according to Davis (1979) is that while experiences undoubtedly draw from the past, they must draw from one's own personal history rather than from books, stories, publications, etc. An individual cannot be nostalgic for a period, event, etc., during which he or she has not lived. As noted earlier, because of the preponderance of key life cycle discontinuities during adolescence and early adulthood, this has been observed to be a particularly potent period from which to draw nostalgic experiences (Davis 1979). Memories tend to be filtered and recalled sans negative elements.
Generations. Although nostalgic experience is defined to draw from one's lived past, there is an important intergenerational phenomenon. As one generation both privately and collectively reminisces about its adolescence, these memories become, in essence, a new experience for the next generation. As Davis (1979, p. 61) noted, "...when today's adolescents reach middle age it is probable that their nostalgic revivals will include symbolic fragments and residues of what had been the nostalgia of their parents."
Orders of Nostalgia. An important distinction has been made by Davis (1979) among three orders or levels of nostalgic experience. First order or simple nostalgia is associated with the base belief that "things were better in the past." According to Davis (1979, p. 21), "The emotional posture is that of a yearning for return, albeit accompanied often by an ambivalent recognition that such is not possible." In second order or reflexive nostalgia, individuals question or analyze the past rather than sentimentalize it. The posture is much more a sense of "was it really that way?" (Davis 1979). Finally, in third order or interpreted nostalgia, the individual analyzes to a much greater extent his or her nostalgic experience. Davis (1979, p. 24) writes, "The actor here seeks in some fashion to objectify the nostalgia he feels. He directs at it (again with varying diligence and to varying degree) analytically oriented questions concerning its sources, typical character, significance, and psychological purpose. Why am I feeling nostalgic?" While second order nostalgia attempts to analyze the past critically, third order nostalgia analyzes the nostalgic response itself.
Consumer Research and Nostalgia
Two related papers examine the role of the past in determining current preferences and perceptions. Holbrook (1990) has developed an index for the measurement of nostalgia-proneness and nostalgic feelings that appears to have satisfactory reliability and some degree of face and predictive validity. This index supplements the empirical work done by McCann (1943) on the measurement of nostalgia and extends this research into a consumption-oriented setting. More research in this area is necessary to refine the index and test it in a broader range of situations. Holbrook and Schindler (1989) found that respondents favored music popular during their late adolescence or early adulthood, with the peak in preferences occurring between 23 and 24 years cf age. This finding supports Davis's (1979) hypothesis concerning the most fertile period(s) for nostalgic reflection.
THE USE OF NOSTALGIA IN MARKETING AND ADVERTISING
References to the past in the marketplace reach back to periods within the consumer's own experience--possibly ranging from perhaps ten to seventy years--and to eras that predate the consumer's lifespan. They may evoke memories of peaceful, pleasant times or of times of tension and turmoil. The current boom of nostalgia-based products, advertising and promotional messages, magazines, and radio and television programming is targeted primarily to two large groups of consumers: the baby-boomers (now in their late 30s and 40s) and senior citizens.
To reach these consumers, the current wave of nostalgia-related marketing looks back primarily to the 1960s and to the 1930s and 40s. These are periods consistent with the adolescence or early adulthood of members of the "baby boom" generation, now in their late 30s or early 40s, and the senior citizen market. The following section will discuss several examples of the use of nostalgia in television and print advertising, examining both the subjects of nostalgia and the means used to encourage nostalgic feelings.
A parallel trend has been the increase in interest in the more distant past, as reflected in the success of magazines and books dealing with the 19th century and the early 20th century. The contrast between the evocation of nostalgia for the recent past and the elicitation of feelings for the more distant past will also be discussed. While interest in the 1800s or early 1900s may reflect a longing for a "golden age," it is not identical with true nostalgia (as narrowly defined in the research reviewed earlier), which relies primarily on individual memories and experience. However, the feelings of warmth, happiness, and security that may be evoked by these messages are likely to be similar enough to those evoked by true "nostalgic" messages to warrant classifying these magazines, books, and advertisements as "nostalgia-based" stimuli. Therefore, we feel that a broader definition of nostalgia may be appropriate in the context of consumer behavior.
Products and Advertising Appeals
Advertising for products may consciously evoke past associations and memories to create or recall positive affective responses. The products themselves may also engender nostalgic emotions during consumption, allowing consumers to "reexperience" aspects of their past or to experience the collective past of the society vicariously through fantasy in much the same manner as Disney's Main Street U.S.A. allows visitors to "experience" as small town America that never really existed.
Numerous products and packages from the past or inspired by the past have been (re)introduced or (re)positioned to appeal explicitly to consumers' nostalgic feelings. Many of the products evoke a distant past beyond the direct experience of most consumers. For example, General Foods recently introduced Maxwell House 1892 Slow-Roasted Coffee. The can is a copy of a 19th-century design (Rothenberg 1989). Print advertising for the product claims that "1892 was a very good year for coffee" and evokes images of an era when merchants "did things a little differently" and "with something of a reverence for the old way of making things." Television advertising for 1892 coffee is filled with images of small-town, = C a not-too-clearly-defined time in the past. Kellogg's celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Rice Krispies with advertising images from the 1920s. In a similar manner, Hershey recreated a "Vintage Edition" package design from 1912 for its milk chocolate bars and the Dial Corporation packaged 20 Mule Team Borax in an "period"-design box. Although these products are either new or have been available continuously since their introduction, the packaging and/or messages clearly conjure up impressions of a bygone era when "things were better."
The past evoked by these products and packages is an idealized image of a period in our cultural history. This nostalgia for a past era in our nation's history crosses ethnic and subcultural boundaries. When Lord & Taylor chose a Victorian theme for the store's Christmas decorations last year a vice president of the store noted that "it gives everyone a warm, cozy feeling and brings back memories" (Fabricant 1989). It did not matter that many consumers' own personal memories may have had little in common with Victorian decoration, horse-drawn sleighs, and plum pudding. Similarly, the scenes of small town life depicted in the Maxwell House ads for 1892 coffee are designed to evoke a warm feeling of nostalgia, even among consumers for whom home is the Upper West Side of Manhattan and whose ancestors never directly experienced small-town America.
The non-literal nature of many of the images associated with nostalgia is illustrated by the new plazas being constructed along the [New York] Gov. Thomas E. Dewey Thruway (The New York Times 1990a). Designed in a turn-of-the-century Adirondack style, they are intended to "bring up images of holidays and- vacations." However, despite the stone or brick 19th-century exteriors and slate roofs, the interiors will be modern, with brightly colored synthetic materials, and will contain such familiar names as Burger King and Bob's Big Boy. Consumers will be able to fantasize about a lost era of travel without having to forgo a Whopper for lunch.
Other products evoke a period more directly related to the consumer's own past, more closely allied to the original meaning of nostalgia. For most baby boomers, this means a past and a home heavily influenced by television programming and advertising. One group of products and advertising messages attempts to evoke strong childhood memories. Thus, Leaf Inc. is using television commercials featuring "Frankie and the Switzers," a parody of 1960s-style singing groups, to advertise Switzer's licorice and is bringing back Choo-Choo Charlie to promote Good and Plenty candy (Scott 1989). Parents of young children will be transported back to their own childhood when Punchy asks "How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?" (Schiller 1990). Jiffy Pop popcorn combats the trend to microwave popcorn by reminding consumers that "Some things are even better than you remember," a strong claim considering the filtering and positive halo typically attached to nostalgic memories. Sonic, a chain of drive-in restaurants, has grown by targeting aging baby boomers, adopting a 50s image and using Frankie Avalon as the company spokesperson (Diamond 1989).
Other products and themes targeted to baby boomers may be more strongly associated with adolescence or early adulthood, a particularly fertile period for nostalgic reminiscence (Davis 1979; Holbrook and Schindler 1989). Coca-Cola directly evokes its advertising of twenty years ago with its remake of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" (Mabry 1990). In the mid '80s Rhino Records reissued the 20-year-old recordings of the Monkees as "Original Classics" (Morris 1986). (Shortly thereafter the television series was itself rebroadcast on Nickelodeon, a cable network specializing in "nostalgia" programming from the 1960s and '70s.) As we move into the 90s, the interval of about twenty years noted by Davis (1979) between an individual's first major nostalgic period and his/her strongest memories is clearly illustrated by the return of the ubiquitous Happy Face on new clothing styles (Hirsch 1989), beehive hairstyles, and the release of such recorded compilations as "Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the '70s" (Pareles 1990).
Other marketers have targeted an older market. Joe Franklin Productions plans to introduce such products as a "Nostalgicize" exercise video (complete with 1940's music, a period of adolescence for many of those exercising to the tape) and the Memory Lane Club of America, a service aimed at collectors of old records and movies (Viuker 1987). Warner-Lambert is once again selling Beeman's, Clove, and Blackjack chewing gum, brands likely to be recognized by older consumers.
A retail industry has emerged to satisfy the desire of consumers for products from their past (Smith n.d.). The purchasers of these objects are more apt to be men than women. As Alan Dershowitz notes (1987, p. 46),
Salesmen at the nostalgia shops tell me that men in their 40's and 50's experience the need to "collect" their adolescence more than women do. "When I see a guy with a goofy looking grin dragging a couple of teen-age kids through my door on a weekend, I know my summer vacation will be paid for," one shop owner told me. "But if he's got his wife with him, he'll probably buy just one sensible memento for his office."
While products such as Maxwell House 1892 coffee may "safely" construct a past with carefully controlled images, products and images directly related to the consumer's own past may evoke a host of memories both good and bad. Certainly, the 1960s (for baby boomers) and the 1940s (for their parents) were periods in history of great turmoil and are as likely to evoke negative emotions as positive ones. While "I'd like to teach the world to sing" may be fondly remembered by a generation of Coca-Cola consumers, the memories it evokes may not all be pleasant. However, the vividness of these memories may result in consumers quickly noticing and remembering the new commercial. In addition, first order (or simple) nostalgia tends to filter information, leaving the consumer with the impression that life (or a product) was better in the past that it (perhaps) really was.
The recent appearance of magazines like Memories: The Magazine of Then and Now, Nostalgia Magazine, and Joe Franklin's Nostalgia contain page after page of articles discussing the 1940s, '50s, and '60s and represent a direct appeal to nostalgic sentiments (Malanga 1990). Memories has proved so successful that NBC is producing a television spinoff based on the magazine (Rothenberg 1990). By 1984, close to 200 radio stations had adopted a "nostalgia" format, programming popular music of the '30s and '40s (McGuigan 1984). The "Music of Your Life" syndicated format has extended this approach forward to the 1960s, targeting the 35-and-older audience ignored by many popular music stations. Television programs such as The Wonder Years and the programming on "Nick at Nite" put the viewer in the context of the 1960s. Targeting a different audience, the Nostalgia Channel specializes in older movies aimed at the "over 49 market" (Broadcasting 1987). These magazines and programs provide an obvious outlet for nostalgia-based marketing messages; some of the magazines encourage reproduction of period advertising. As in the case of recent products (i.e., those remembered from childhood or adulthood) the articles and programs evoke specific associations in the minds of consumers. For example, The Wonder Years uses visual images, products, music, fashions, and news reports to clearly evoke the late 1960s.
Not only is there a boom in current programming and advertising that turns to the past for inspiration, but there is also a sizable market for old programs and advertisements themselves. For example, Video Resources produces a 16-page newsletter advertising twenty-four one-hour video volumes of "Classic Commercials," as well as more specialized videos of beer commercials, car commercials, and kids commercials (The New York Times 1990b).
The success of Victoria magazine illustrates the strong appeal of a past that is well beyond the direct experience of its readership and that in many instances has little to do with the reality of the period being evoked (Foltz 1990). These "manufactured memories" are quite similar to the messages used in advertising such as the Maxwell House 1892 coffee ads discussed above.
Nostalgia--the longing to return to home, whether real or fantasized, whether in the recent or distant past--exerts an influence in varied aspects of consumer and consumption behavior. Although first described as a pathological phenomenon, current research views nostalgia as a milder, "normal" condition that contains both personal and universal characteristics. The apparent tendency of individuals to feel nostalgic emotions more strongly during transitional periods in the life cycle has not gone unrecognized by advertisers and marketers. The simultaneous passage from one life stage to another by two large, important consumer market segments-the baby boomers and the senior market--has provided marketers with an unusual opportunity to capitalize on this inclination.
Nostalgic messages targeted toward baby boomers have focused on the 1960s and early 1970s, an interval of approximately twenty years. This mirrors neatly the difference between the generation's period of adolescence and the present. It is interesting to note that "period" television programs of a decade ago (e.g., Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley) were often set in the 1950s, preserving the twenty-year gap between the subject matter and the current time period. This decade seems much less evident in current advertising and television programming aimed at a young adult audience. Similarly, media and messages aimed at senior citizens tend to concentrate on the 1930s and 1940s, when those now in their sixties and early seventies were adolescents and young adults.
The products and messages used by advertisers seem designed to elicit first order (or simple) nostalgia (Davis 1979). There is little attempt to critically examine the past. In fact, such an analysis would tend to negate much of the power of nostalgia in marketing situations, since the appeals seem to be designed to produce positive affective responses with a minimum of cognitive processing of negative information. One interesting example is the Jiffy-Pop slogan ("Some things are even better than you remember"), which explicitly argues against the tendency (characteristic of second order nostalgia) to examine the past objectively.
One clear distinction may be drawn between (1) nostalgia-based marketing messages for new brands or products and (2) inherently nostalgic products or services. Sonic restaurants may evoke the 1950s through decor, music, and commercial spokesmen, but the restaurants themselves remain basically a new experience for most consumers. Products such as Good and Plenty, Jiffy Pop popcorn, Coca-Cola, and Ovaltine are themselves likely to evoke memories of past times and to inspire nostalgic reflection, not only through advertising appeals but through the consumption of the products themselves. The advertising may explicitly encourage the retrieval of these memories through cues such as music, jingles, slogans, and visual images. In these cases, the consumer already has a potentially complex network of associations built up around the product and the marketer only needs to facilitate access. As mentioned earlier, there is some risk of recalling negative associations, but one important characteristic of nostalgia is the filtering of negative information--the past is almost always remembered as better or happier than it probably was (Davis 1979).
CURRENT CONSUMER RESEARCH IN NOSTALGIA AND DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
Two papers presented at the 1990 Conference of the Association for Consumer Research examine the impact of age on the formation of preferences for different stimuli. Holbrook and Schindler (1990) extend their research concerning musical tastes to relate the shape of the preference curve for actors and actresses to nostalgia, using the Nostalgia Index described above. Schindler and Holbrook (1990) use the Nostalgia Index to examine the relationship of nostalgic tendencies to fashion tastes.
An exploratory empirical examination of nostalgia in the domain of consumer behavior is currently underway and is designed to address the following issues:
1] perceptions of nostalgia as related to consumption,
2] the characteristics of "nostalgic experience,
3] the identification of the types of products and messages most suited to the use of nostalgia, and
4] the relationship of individual characteristics to nostalgia-proneness.
This study will assist in identifying the range of nostalgic experiences in a consumer framework and help to develop a working definition of nostalgia in an advertising and consumption context.
Additional research is needed to refine measures of consumption-specific nostalgic reactions and nostalgia-proneness across a wider variety of products, services, and consumption situations and for diverse groups of consumers. In addition, research concerning the impact of various stimuli (music, images, objects, smells) on the evocation of nostalgic feelings, and the effectiveness of alternative modalities in evoking nostalgia is needed.
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