Nostalgia, Materialism, and Product Preference: an Initial Inquiry

Aric Rindfleisch, University of Arizona
Dan Freeman, University of Arizona
James E. Burroughs, Rutgers University
ABSTRACT - In recent years, both nostalgia and materialism have garnered considerable interest as means of enriching our understanding of how consumers relate to the objects they consume. Unfortunately, little research to date has addressed the roles nostalgia and materialism play in shaping consumers’ preferences for everyday products and services. We attempt to address this shortcoming by investigating the relationship between nostalgia and materialism and exploring how these orientations influence preference and choice for automobiles. Results from two studies suggest that nostalgia (i.e., an orientation toward the past) is negatively related to materialism (i.e., a focus on fulfilling present needs). In addition, we find that materialistic individuals prefer an automobile high in status appeal over an automobile with nostalgic appeal; however, the reverse cannot be said for nostalgic individuals. For an automobile with combined (i.e., status and nostalgic) appeal, neither materialism nor nostalgia were predictive of product preferenc or choice. Rather, materialistic and nostalgic individuals were just as likely to choose an automobile that did not contain either appeal. This suggests that materialism and nostalgia may be somewhat oppositional, and that marketers need to be careful about combining these appeals and inadvertently neutralizing whatever positive effects these two orientations might have individually on consumer preference and choice.
[ to cite ]:
Aric Rindfleisch, Dan Freeman, and James E. Burroughs (2000) ,"Nostalgia, Materialism, and Product Preference: an Initial Inquiry", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 36-41.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 36-41

NOSTALGIA, MATERIALISM, AND PRODUCT PREFERENCE: AN INITIAL INQUIRY

Aric Rindfleisch, University of Arizona

Dan Freeman, University of Arizona

James E. Burroughs, Rutgers University

ABSTRACT -

In recent years, both nostalgia and materialism have garnered considerable interest as means of enriching our understanding of how consumers relate to the objects they consume. Unfortunately, little research to date has addressed the roles nostalgia and materialism play in shaping consumers’ preferences for everyday products and services. We attempt to address this shortcoming by investigating the relationship between nostalgia and materialism and exploring how these orientations influence preference and choice for automobiles. Results from two studies suggest that nostalgia (i.e., an orientation toward the past) is negatively related to materialism (i.e., a focus on fulfilling present needs). In addition, we find that materialistic individuals prefer an automobile high in status appeal over an automobile with nostalgic appeal; however, the reverse cannot be said for nostalgic individuals. For an automobile with combined (i.e., status and nostalgic) appeal, neither materialism nor nostalgia were predictive of product preferenc or choice. Rather, materialistic and nostalgic individuals were just as likely to choose an automobile that did not contain either appeal. This suggests that materialism and nostalgia may be somewhat oppositional, and that marketers need to be careful about combining these appeals and inadvertently neutralizing whatever positive effects these two orientations might have individually on consumer preference and choice.

INTRODUCTION

In the search for a broadened view of consumer behavior, consumer researchers have devoted considerable attention to uncovering the general values, orientations, and beliefs that underlie consumption activities. In particular, both nostalgia and materialism have generated considerable interest as means of furthering our understanding of how consumers relate to the objects they consume. Although they emanate from separate literature streams, nostalgia and materialism share a common conceptual bond in terms of their focus on the temporal aspects of consumption. In the case of nostalgia, it has been shown that orientation to the past influences consumers’ preference for such cultural products as movie stars and musical hits (Holbrook 1993; Holbrook and Schindler 1989). On the other hand, research on materialism suggests that consumers who strongly value possessions may have an inability to delay gratification and exhibit a strong orientation toward satisfying their present wants and desires (Richins and Dawson 1992; Rindfleisch, Burroughs, and Denton 1997). Thus, while nostalgia appears to direct one’s orientation toward a romanticized past, materialism pushes one towards a materially-gratified present. In addition to this temporal connection, both nostalgia and materialism appear to influence consumers’ symbolic interactions with their possessions. Specifically, while nostalgia tends to imbue objects with a symbolic tie to people and experiences in one’s past (Holak and Havlena 1992), materialism is often manifested in the use of objects as public symbols of one’s current success (Richins and Dawson 1992).

Despite the apparent conceptual connections between these constructs, the empirical relationship between nostalgia and materialism remains unexplored. Moreover, there has been surprisingly little research on how either of these two orientations influence the consumption of everyday products or services. In this paper, we seek to enrich these two streams of research by examining the relationship between nostalgia and materialism via two initial studies. In particular, our intent is to explore the empirical relationship between nostalgia and materialism as well as the relative influence of these two orientations on product preference and choice.

CONCEPTUALIZATION

As noted earlier, nostalgia and materialism share a temporal connection. Specifically, nostalgia reflects not only a preference for the past, but also a disdain for the present (Davis 1979; Holbrook 1993). Davis (1979) claims that nostalgia entails, "a positively toned evocation of a lived past in the context of some negative feeling toward present or impending circumstance" (p. 18). Tversky and Griffin (1991) suggest that this tension between past and present arises because nostalgic thoughts produce a contrast effect in which positive events in the past are compared against less desirable conditions in the present.

In contrast to nostalgia’s disdain for the present, materialism focuses on the gratification of present wants and desires through the acquisition and possession of material objects (Richins and Dawson 1992; Rindfleisch et al. 1997). Given this focus on current wants and desires, materialistic individuals appear to broadly accept contemporary cosumption messages, norms, and lifestyles. As a result, these individuals are likely to exhibit little interest in a romanticized past. For example, Richins and Dawson (1992) show that materialism is negatively related to preference for a voluntary simplistic lifestyle, such as an earlier way of life. This finding is congruent with recent research by Belk and Costa (1998), which finds that members of the modern mountain men movement, who possess highly nostalgic sentiments for the simpler lifestyle of 19th century trappers and hunters, express great disdain for the trappings of contemporary material life.

In addition to this difference in temporal orientation, nostalgia and materialism are also differentiated based on the type of product symbolism evoked by each construct. As noted by Solomon (1983), "Products are consumed for both their social meaning (as symbols) and for their private meanings (as signs)" (p. 324). This public vs. private distinction is a common theme in materialism research, which finds that individuals with high levels of materialism place a considerable degree of value on possessions with public symbolic value (Richins 1994). In contrast, the nostalgia literature suggests that nostalgia is often an extremely idiosyncratic and personal experience and that the nostalgic meanings generated from objects (even mass-marketed products) tend to be of a very private nature (Daniels 1984; Holak and Havlena 1992). Thus, while nostalgia-proneness appears to promote the appropriation of private signs, materialism encourages the appropriation of public symbols with consensually recognizable meanings. In sum, these differences in temporal orientation and product symbolism suggest that nostalgia and materialism should be negatively related.

In addition to the relationship between these two constructs, we are also interested in their influence on consumer preference and choice. Both nostalgia and materialism have been touted as individual difference variables capable of serving as predictors of consumer preference (Holbrook 1994; Richins and Rudmin 1994). However, there have been few applications of either construct to the reality of everyday consumer products or services. We seek to provide such an application by exploring the effect of nostalgia and materialism on preference and choice for new automobiles. In addition to their symbolic value, automobiles are the one product category that has been empirically linked to both nostalgia (Holak and Havlena 1992) and materialism (Richins and Dawson 1992).

As noted earlier, we expect nostalgia and materialism to be negatively related. In other words, consumers with high degree of nostalgia proneness will generally have a low level of material values. In addition, nostalgia and materialism should lead consumers to be responsive to different types of product appeals. As noted by Holbrook (1993), nostalgia-proneness should lead consumers to favor products with strong nostalgic appeal (i.e., the re-launched VW Beetle). A nostalgic appeal is generated by products that were popular or fashionable when one was younger (or even before one was born). In contrast, a high level of materialism should lead consumers to favor products with luxury or status appeals (i.e., a new Lexus), because these products provide materialists with symbolic markers of their success (Richins and Dawson 1992). We directly examine these predictions in Study 1 in by asking consumers to choose between, and indicate their relative preference for, a pair of automobiles with nostalgic and status appeal, respectively. Study 2 extends this initial inquiry by exploring the impact of nostalgia and materialism on choice between, and relative preference for, an automobile high in both nostalgic and status appeal versus an automobile low in both nostalgic and status appeal.

METHOD AND RESULTS

Study 1

Method: This first study tests our conceptualization using an exploratory survey of 141 undergraduate students enrolled at Rutgers University. We assessed nostalgia using Holbrook and Schindler’s (1994) 8-item Nostalgia scale, and materialism using Richins and Dawson’s (1992) 18-item Material Values scale. As product stimuli, subjects were shown (simultaneously) a color slide of a new 1999 VW Beetle (a product high in nostalgic appeal and low in materialistic appeal) and a new 1999 Lexus GS300 (a product low in nostalgic appeal and high in materialistic appeal). While viewing these two automobiles, subjects were asked the following product choice question:

"Assume you just won a contest and you have a choice between either a new Lexus GS300 or a new VW Beetle (plus the cash difference between the two automobiles). Which car would you prefer?"

This choice question was followed by a preference question which asked subjects to indicate their relative preference for the Lexus GS300 over the VW Beetle using a 5-point scale ranging from strong preference for the Lexus to strong preference for the VW. Subjects were also asked to rate each automobile on nostalgia, luxury, and status using a 7-point Likert-type format. As control measures, subjects were asked to record their level of familiarity with each automobile (using a 7-point Likert-type format) and to identify their age, gender, and ethnicity.

Our initial data purification efforts showed that the nostalgia scale had a low degree of reliability (alpha=.63). Therefore, an exploratory factor analysis of the eight items was performed. This analysis yielded a two-factor solution encompassing all but one of the items. The first factor consisted of three items focused on nostalgic feelings regarding products (e.g., "Things used to be made better in the good old days"). This factor has a alpha of .76, and we term it, "Product-Nostalgia." The second factor consisted of four items focused on nostalgic feelings about life in general (i.e., "Modern business constantly build a better tomorrow"). This factor has a alpha of .75, and we term it, "Life-Nostalgia." Material Values has a coefficient alpha of .85. As a manipulation check, we found that subjects viewed the VW Beetle as higher in nostalgia (MeanVW=5.5, MeanLexus=3.2, p-.01), but lower in both luxury (MeanVW=2.3, MeanLexus=6.5, p-.01) and status (MeanVW=2.8, MeanLexus=6.4, p-.01) than the Lexus GS300.

Results: Our initial analysis examined the Pearson correlations between materialism and both measures of nostalgia. These correlations are presented in Table 1. As shown in this table, there is no apparent relationship between material values and the product-focused dimension of nostalgia. However, there is a significant negative correlation (r=-.30, p-.01) between material values and the life-focused dimension of nostalgia. Thus our hypothesis that nostalgia and materialism are negatively related receives partial support.

We examined the influence of nostalgia and materialism on product choice by conducting a logistic regression in which choice of automobile (i.e., Lexus vs. VW) was the dependent variable and Life-Nostalgia, Product-Nostalgia, and material values served as independent variables. We also included familiarity with each automobile and subject age and gender as control variables. Seven subjects were excluded from this analysis due to their failure to provide full information. As shown in Table 2, the overall fit of this logistic regression was significant (chi-square=32.0, df=7, p-.01). Among our predictor and control variables, only material values (beta -.07, Wald=13.1, p-.01) and familiarity with the VW (beta=.48, Wald=8.0, p-.01) are significantly related to product choice. Thus, materialism is negatively associated with choice of the VW Beetle (and therefore positively associated with choice of the Lexus GS300). In contrast, familiarity with the VW is positively related to choosing it over the Lexus.

We examined the influence of nostalgia and materialism on product preference by conducting a linear regression in which preference for brand of automobile (Lexus versus VW) was the dependent variable and Life-Nostalgia, Product-Nostalgia, and material values served as independent variables. Once again, we included familiarity with each automobile and subject age and gender as control variables. Eight subjects were excluded from this analysis due to their failure to provide full information. As shown in Table 3, the overall fit of this linear regression was significant (R2=.33, F=8.9, p-.01). Among our predictor and control variables, material values (beta=-.38, p-.01), familiarity with the VW (beta=.27, p-.01), familiarity with the Lexus (beta=-.29, p-.01), and gender (beta=-.19, p-.02) are significantly related to product preference. Materialism, familiarity with the Lexus, and being a male are associated with a preference for the Lexus GS300 over the VW Beetle; in contrast, familiarity with the VW is associated a preference for the VW Beetle over the Lexus GS300.

Taken together, these two regressions suggest that for products with a high degree of public symbolism and consensually recognizable meanings such as the new VW Beetle and the Lexus GS300, materialism is a stronger predictor of preference and choice than either measure of nostalgia. As a means of testing the robustness and generalizability of these findings from Study 1, we conducted a second study that employed a similar method but utilized alternative stimuli.

Study 2

Method: This study examines the robustness and generalizability of the findings from Study 1 by conducting an exploratory survey of 47 undergraduate students enrolled at Rutgers University and 47 undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Arizona. Once again, we assessed nostalgia using Holbrook and Schindler’s (1994) 8-item Nostalgia scale, and materialism using Richins and Dawson’s (1992) 18-item Material Values scale. As product stimuli, subjects were shown (simultaneously) a color slide of a new 1999 Honda Civic (chosen via pretesting to be low in both nostalgic appeal and materialistic appeal) and a new 1999 Plymouth Prowler (chosen to be high in both nostalgic appeal and materialistic appeal). While viewing these two automobiles, subjects were asked choice and preference questions analogous to those used in Study 1. Subjects were also asked to rate each automobile on nostalgia, luxury, and status using a 7-point Likert-type scale. As control measures, subjects were asked to record their level of familiarity with each automobile (using a 7-point Likert-type scale) and to identify their age, gender, and ethnicity.

TABLE 1

KEY MEASURE STATISTICS FOR STUDY 1

TABLE 2

LOGISTIC REGRESSION OF THE EFFECT OF NOSTALGIA AND MATERIALISM ON PRODUCT CHOICE

STUDY 1: VW BEETLE VS. LEXUS GS300

TABLE 3

OLS REGRESSION OF THE EFFECT OF NOSTALGIA AND MATERIALISM ON PRODUCT PREFERENCE

STUDY 1: VW BEETLE VS. LEXUS GS300

TABLE 4

KEY MEASURE STATISTICS FOR STUDY 2

As before, an exploratory factor analysis of the eight item nostalgia scale revealed a two-factor solution (i.e., Product-Nostalgia and Life-Nostalgia) encompassing all but one of the items. The three-item Product-Nostalgia factor has an alpha of .75 while the four-item Life-Nostalgia factor has an alpha of .81. Material Values has a coefficient alpha of .85. As a manipulation check, we found that subjects viewed the Plymouth Prowler as significantly higher in nostalgia (MeanProwler=5.2, MeanCivic=2.7, p-.01), luxury (MeanProwler=5.2, MeanCivic=2.9, p-.01) and status (MeanProwler=5.5, MeanCivic=2.9, p-.01) than the Honda Civic.

Results: As before, our initial analysis examined the Pearson correlations between materialism and both measures of nostalgia. These correlations are presented in Table 4. As shown in this table, there is a significant negative correlation (r=-.22, p-.04) between material values and the product-focused dimension of nostalgia. However, there is no apparent relationship between material values and the life-focused dimension of nostalgia. Once again, our conceptualization that nostalgia and materialism are negatively related receives partial support. However, the pattern of effects is opposite that of Study 1, which found that material values is negatively related to Life-Nostalgia but urelated to Product-Nostalgia.

We examined the influence of nostalgia and materialism on product choice by conducting a logistic regression in which choice of automobile (i.e., Civic vs. Prowler) was the dependent variable and Life-Nostalgia, Product-Nostalgia, and material values were the independent variables. We also included familiarity with each automobile and subject age and gender as control variables. The overall fit of this logistic regression was not significant (chi-square=5.3, df=7, p-.63). Among our predictor variables, only gender (beta=1.02, Wald=3.9, p-.05) is significantly related to product choice (i.e., being female is positively related to choosing the Honda Civic over the Plymouth Prowler). Thus, both nostalgia and materialism appear to have no influence on our subjects’ choice between the Honda Civic and the Plymouth Prowler.

We examined the influence of nostalgia and materialism on product preference by conducting a linear regression in which relative preference for the Civic versus the Prowler was the dependent variable and Life-Nostalgia, Product-Nostalgia, and material values were the independent variables. Once again, we included familiarity with each automobile and subject age and gender as control variables. The overall fit of this linear regression was not significant (R2=.08, F=0.97, p-.46). Among our predictor variables, only familiarity with the Prowler (beta=-.25, p-.05) is significantly related to product preference (i.e., familiarity is positively related to preference for the Prowler relative to the Civic). Thus, both nostalgia and materialism appear to have no influence on our subjects’ relative preference for the Honda Civic over the Plymouth Prowler.

Taken together, these two regressions suggest that neither materialism nor nostalgia influence the preference or choice for products that attempt to combine both materialistic (i.e., luxury and status) and nostalgic appeals.

DISCUSSION

These two studies provide an initial assessment of the relationship between nostalgia (i.e., preference for the past) and materialism (i.e., a focus on present needs) and their combined influence on product preference and choice. Although our results are mixed, we believe that this inquiry yields some key insights into the influence of these consumption orientations on consumer preference and choice. In this final section, we briefly discuss the implications of our findings and directions for extending our research.

In recent years, nostalgic appeals have grown increasingly popular across a broad range of products and services, including such products as soft drinks (e.g., Coca-Cola), automobiles (e.g., VW Beetle), watches (e.g., Fossil), and fast food (e.g., Sonic). A similar trend has occurred in materialistic appeals, as luxury and status themes appear to be increasingly common elements of the marketing landscape. Unfortunately, the efficacy of these nostalgic and materialistic appeals remains largely unknown, as research on both nostalgia and materialism is at an early stage of development and has yet to explore the influence of these consumption orientations on product preference and choice.

As a starting point, our study examines the empirical relationship between these two constructs and finds that materialism is negatively related to nostalgia. However, this finding is somewhat cautionary, as the pattern of the relationship differs in our two studies; while materialism is negatively related to nostalgia’s life dimension in Study 1, materialism is negatively related to nostalgia’s product dimension in Study 2. If substantiated by future research, the negative relationship between nostalgia and materialism could have important implications for marketing communications. Specifically, it implies that since highly nostalgic consumers tend to be low in materialism they may be unresponsive to mass-marketed nostalgic appals for products rich in luxury or status symbolism (e.g., automobiles, watches, clothes).

This potential unresponsiveness to product categories known for materialistic appeals may be one reason why nostalgia is a poor predictor of product preference and choice in our two studies. Although each of our two studies included an option (i.e., VW Beetle and Honda Civic) low in terms of luxury and status, subjects may perceive the automobile category itself as highly materialistic in nature. Thus future research efforts should examine the influence of nostalgia on the preference and choice for categories with less pronounced materialistic overtones (e.g., soft drinks, breakfast cereals, laundry detergent). However, given that nostalgic meanings are often quite personal and idiosyncratic, mass-marketed nostalgic appeals may be ineffective even for categories low in materialistic imagery.

The relation between nostalgia and materialism seems especially intriguing when one considers the manner in which these two orientations are portrayed in contemporary marketing appeals. A growing number of products and services (e.g., Plymouth Prowler, Dean Whitter Financial Services) appear to be attempting to combine elements of nostalgia along with materialistic appeals of status and luxury symbolism. By mixing nostalgic and materialistic appeals, these "retro-status" products run the risk of being too laden with contemporary status symbolism and too commercialized to appeal to highly nostalgic individuals. Conversely, such products may be too closely tied with images of an out-of-date past to appeal to highly materialistic individuals. In effect, retro-status objects may be positioned using a dangerous, middle-of-the-road strategy warned against by marketing strategists (Porter 1980). This supposition receives partial support from the findings in Study 2, which shows that the Plymouth Prowler (a product high in both nostalgic and materialistic appeal) is not preferred over the Honda Civic (a product high in both nostalgic and materialistic appeal) by either individuals high in nostalgia or high in materialism. In contrast, the findings in Study 1 suggest that contemporary status objects (e.g., Lexus GS300) are preferred over nostalgic-laden objects (e.g., VW Beetle) by individuals high in materialism. Thus, material values appear to be somewhat predictive of preference and choice for contemporary status objects.

Although nostalgia does not appear to be predictive of choice or preference in either of our studies, we encourage future researchers to examine the influence of nostalgia more broadly. As a starting point, future research efforts should extend the breadth of our sampling frame, as a more diverse adult population may exhibit stronger and more well-formed orientations toward both nostalgia and materialism. Specifically, it would be interesting to assess the predictive validity of nostalgia-proneness on preference for the re-launched VW Beetle among a pool of subjects who have first-hand recollections of the original VW Beetle. As noted earlier, future nostalgia research should also explore alternative product (and service) categories. While our study focuses on preference and choice in a two-brand setting, future research efforts should examine the influence of nostalgia in a multi-brand context that would more closely approximate actual consumption situations. For example, a replication of Study 1 that introduced a third automobile more nostalgic than the Lexus GS300 but less nostalgic that the VW Beetle could affect the role of nostalgia on preference and/or choice by producing an attraction or compromise effect (cf. Simonson 1989).

Finally, future research on nostalgia should pay close attention to the dimensionality and reliability of the nostalgia scale itself. Although the two dimensions (i.e., Life-Nostalgia and Product-Nostalgia) that emerge from this scale display adequate trait reliability and reasonable face validity, it is somewhat troubling that all three of the Product-Nostalgia items are negatively worded (e.g., "products are getting shoddier and shoddier"), and the four Life-Nostalgia items are positively worded (e.g., "modern business constntly builds a better tomorrow"). As documented by Herche and Engelland (1996), negatively-worded items frequently disrupt scale unidimensionality, as subjects perceive negatively worded items in qualitatively different terms than their positively-worded counterparts. Thus, future researchers may want to revisit the nostalgia scale and its construction.

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