Abstract - Nostalgia in Advertising Text: Romancing the Past

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
[ to cite ]:
Barbara B. Stern (1992) ,"Abstract - Nostalgia in Advertising Text: Romancing the Past", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 388-389.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 388-389

ABSTRACT -

NOSTALGIA IN ADVERTISING TEXT: ROMANCING THE PAST

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

The perennially childlike quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space (Frye 1973, p. 186).

Nostalgia in advertising has become a focal point of controversy in the past decade. On the one hand, marketing practitioners and advertising creatives hail nostalgic campaigns as a good way to make the most of the "gift" of brand equity possessed by old products, slogans, and packaging (Winters 1990, p. 16). In this view, Barbie Breakfast Cereal, for example, makes effective use of the pleasurable recollections associated with Barbie dolls to appeal to the children of those who first played house with Barbie and Ken. On the other hand, social commentators damn the nostalgia craze as evidence of the collective bad taste of the American public, aided and abetted by advertising. In this view, the Barbie collection now housed in the Smithsonian is "intended presumably to show somebody from the future what disgusting times we lived in" (Gorman 1990, p. 16).

The heat generated by this controversy has precluded close examination of the phenomenon of nostalgia in marketing communications. The purpose of this paper is to address that issue by focusing critical attention on the analysis of nostalgia as an aspect of marketing text. The analytic mission begins by addressing the definitional issue (Havlena and Holak 1991) of what form or forms nostalgia takes in commercial text. The paper uses literary history and theory to analyze nostalgia as a communication theme, on the grounds that advertisements borrow both style and substance from literary antecedents. Even though this paper relies on literary criticism, "text" is interpreted broadly to include pictorial (Steiner 1988) and musical elements (Holbrook and Schindler 1989) as well as verbal ones. The reason is that nostalgia themes in advertising are often multi-media, with words, music, and/or pictures interacting. In addition, marketing communications are also interpreted generously to include not only advertisements, but also mail order catalogues, periodicals, and entrepreneurial ventures whose promotion is nostalgia-driven.

This paper follows Blonsky in identifying nostalgia as a theme (or "tape") in promotions (Whalen 1983), and then distinguishes between two separate but related forms: historical and personal. This division is based on advertising's antecedents in literature -- the historical romance and the sentimental novel (Abrams 1988) -- and their differences in both formal elements and intended reader responses. Textual differences center on treatment of time, space, characters, and values, and potential consumer response effects involve empathy with historical romances vis a vis identification with sentimental ones.

The rationale for turning to literary history to explain why both forms of nostalgia are abundant in contemporary advertising rests on the pervasiveness of the fin de siFcle ("end of century") phenomenon at this time (Showalter 1990). Nostalgia is a popular theme in art produced during the waning years of an epoch, a time when the century is metaphorically dying. The fin de siFclesyndrome is heightened at present because of an unprecedented temporal coincidence: the century is ending just as the largest group in the population -- the baby boomers -- also must face its own mortality, signalled by reaching the age of fifty. The text of magazines such as Memories and catalogues such as Wireless: A Gift Catalog for Fans and Friends of Public Radio illustrates nostalgia themes that reflect the "double whammy" of an aging population confronting a century in its final years.

The paper next analyzes the theme of historical nostalgia, in which the past is defined as a time before the audience was born. The literary antecedent is the historical romance, often set in far-away space as well as distant time. In addition to exotic settings, the characters are idealized and larger-than-life "others," symbolic rather than individualized heroes who often attain mythic status (Stern 1990). The values are traditional and conservative, as befits the representation of a past era as a golden age. Nearly any era can be haloed in this fashion if the events and characters are sanitized by filtering out situational evils (war, crime, disease) and by enlarging upon universal virtues (goodness, faith, generosity). The effects of historical nostalgia depend on vivification of an audience's imagination in order to stimulate perceivers to empathize with characters personally unknown to them. The J. Peterman Company catalogue -- Owner's Manual No. 10 -- as well as the magazine Victoria exemplify historical nostalgia in marketing communication.

In contrast to historical nostalgia, the personal theme depicts a time in one's own past, generally twenty or thirty years before "now" (Davis 1979; Holbrook and Schindler 1989). The literary antecedent is the sentimental novel, and personal nostalgia prettifies the individual's past by screening out all but pleasant details. The time frame is one's own lifetime, for these texts reference events from a personal past, and the spatial setting is "home," the locus of the past self. Thus, familiarity is the rule in treating time and space, as opposed to the exoticism of historical nostalgia. While both forms idealize characters, the idealization here embroiders a "personal best" portrait of the self. The values are traditional, often reflecting nurturance and love associated with maternal tenderness recollected from childhood. The effects of personal nostalgia rely upon triggering the perceiver's memory in order to stimulate identification with cherished reminders of the one's past. Advertisements such as Good 'n Plenty ("Choo Choo Charlie") and Campbell's Soups (The "Campbell Kids") as well as periodicals such as Martha Stewart Living demonstrate the use of personal nostalgia as a marketing communication strategy.

The paper ends with three suggestions for future research. First, content analysis is proposed to determine where and when historical and personal nostalgia themes appear in advertising text. An ancillary suggestion is to investigate the fin de siFcle phenomenon over two centuries -- the end of the nineteenth and the end of our own -- by examining the nostalgia content of advertising in both epochs. Second, study of nostalgia effects on consumers in the context of potential gender differences is set forth. Given the appeal of literary antecedents -- notably romances -- primarily to women, the issue of differences in nostalgia stimuli appropriate for men versus women requires further study. Last, the under-researched modalities of smell and taste as nostalgic stimuli deserve more attention than they have heretofore received. Proust's tribute to the "vast structure of recollection" summoned by a single crumb in a teacup serves as a call to pay heed to the power of smell and taste in evoking pleasurable recollections (1928, pp. 65-66):

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me...in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

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