Exploring Nostalgia Imagery Through the Use of Consumer Collages

ABSTRACT - Collages created by small groups were analyzed to explore the nature and structure of nostalgia. Images in the collages relate to both personal and cultural history and memories. The collages are discussed using a four-way classification of nostalgia based on two dimensionsCprivate versus collective and direct versus indirect experienceCthat yields four distinct classes: personal nostalgia, interpersonal nostalgia, cultural nostalgia, and virtual nostalgia. Consumption associations are prevalent in the collages, with food and entertainment images predominating.


William J. Havlena and Susan L. Holak (1996) ,"Exploring Nostalgia Imagery Through the Use of Consumer Collages", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 35-42.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 35-42


William J. Havlena, Fordham University

Susan L. Holak, City University of New York-College of Staten Island


Collages created by small groups were analyzed to explore the nature and structure of nostalgia. Images in the collages relate to both personal and cultural history and memories. The collages are discussed using a four-way classification of nostalgia based on two dimensionsCprivate versus collective and direct versus indirect experienceCthat yields four distinct classes: personal nostalgia, interpersonal nostalgia, cultural nostalgia, and virtual nostalgia. Consumption associations are prevalent in the collages, with food and entertainment images predominating.


The meaning of nostalgia has been studied by researchers using a variety of qualitative research methods. Davis (1979) utilized depth interviews with a small number of informants to develop insights and hypotheses concerning the nature and function of nostalgia in individuals' lives. Verbal descriptions of nostalgic experiences have been used to identify common themes and subjects for nostalgic reflection (Holak and Havlena 1992). Stern (1992) has compared historical and personal forms of nostalgia in advertising to their literary antecedents in the historical romance and sentimental novel.

This paper presents the results of an examination of nostalgic meaning using visual images as stimuli for consumer reflection and elicitation of nostalgia. Subjects were directed to create collages of nostalgic imagery and then to explain their reasons for the inclusion and arrangement of the collage components.

Collage construction has been used as a projective technique in psychiatric evaluation and therapy (cf., Carter, Nelson, and Duncombe 1983, Froehlich and Nelson 1986). For example, the use of collages based on magazine images has been discussed as an alternative to the classic Thematic Apperception Test for multicultural assessment and treatment (Landgarten 1993). Its application to consumer research is an alternative to the use of TAT-type pictures, autodriving, and psychodrawing (Gordon and Langmaid 1988, Heisley and Levy 1991, Rook 1991, Rook and Levy 1983). While collages have been used in the design of advertising (Rickard 1994), their use in basic consumer research has been limited. This method provides a combination of visual and verbal information about the perception and meaning of nostalgia that includes a broad array of consumer-oriented imagery.


The research was conducted with groups of individuals assigned to create collages representative of nostalgia. Using groups had the effect of reducing the sample size and the impact of individual differences, but it stimulated a significant amount of interaction within the groups concerning the meaning of nostalgia and representative images for individual members of the groups, perhaps increasing creativity and interest in the task. In other contexts individual collages may be more appropriate.

The subjects for the research were twenty graduate students of business at a private Eastern university. All were enrolled in upper-level marketing courses. They were not provided with any prior information about nostalgia or its use in marketing.

The subjects were assigned to groups of four students and were instructed to create collages that would portray or represent nostalgia. They were told to use images or words from a set of ten magazines supplied by the researcherCEsquire, Good Housekeeping, Life, People, Redbook, Sports Illustrated, The Inside Collector, Traditional Home, Vanity Fair, and VictoriaCand to arrange them in a collage so that the most important or meaningful materials were positioned at the center of the collage, with the less relevant images placed toward the edges. Thus, both individuals and stimuli were sampled. The stimuli were selected to provide a reasonably broad array of images within the limited time available to the subjects for the task.

The groups were told that they would be observed and videotaped during the task, which would last about thirty minutes. They were also advised that they would be asked to explain their collages at the end of the task.

Five groups completed the task. The groups were run in two sessions, with three groups working simultaneously in the first session and two groups in the second session. The groups were physically separated during the collage task and were unaware of the activities of the other group(s) until after the collages were completed. After completing the collages, but prior to describing them, members of the groups were asked to complete a brief questionnaire designed to measure nostalgia-proneness.

Each group described its collage in front of the researchers and the members of the other group(s) in the session. The researchers prompted group members for more information during and after the initial description of each collage. Notes were taken on the verbal information and the presentations were videotaped. Following all the presentations in each session, the purpose of the task was discussed with the groups.



The groups tended to approach the task by dividing the magazines among the members, with each person browsing through a magazine and then passing it along to another member of the group. Questions about whether to include an item were usually resolved by polling the group. In most cases, groups reached or tried to achieve consensus regarding the inclusion of images. In general, the groups began the task by considering nostalgia as individuals and then discussed the images collectively. The groups noted repeatedly during their presentations that images were included even if they evoked nostalgia for only one member of the group.

Typically, once a set of images had been culled from the magazines the members of the group entered into a discussion of the arrangement of the items within the collage. In most cases, the discussion first centered on the general approach and then moved on to the consideration of individual objects. As will be noted later, the approaches and rules for the placement of images differed markedly across the groups.

Discussion occurred in the group settings concerning the nature of nostalgia. For example, the inherent nostalgic character of black-and-white (as opposed to color) images was discussed within the groups. In addition, as images were collected, group members offered spontaneous recollections of nostalgic associations with the images, often appearing to forget the initial motivation for the task and to be enjoying the experience itself.



There was some initial discussion about the nature of the study in one group, with a few members of the group guessing that the task might be a group dynamics exercise. Other groups did not openly discuss the purpose of the task.


The consumer collages are presented in Figures 1 through 5. The visual images will be discussed in terms of content, using verbal information provided by the subjects during construction and explication of the collages to aid in the interpretation.


Certain image characteristics appear to convey nostalgia. Several subjects mentioned that black-and-white photographs seemed more nostalgic than color images. Here, the feeling of age was the primary determinant and was not linked to any emotional reaction or attachment to the subject of the image. The participants also noted explicitly that age was a criterion for an image to represent nostalgia. One group limited nostalgia to objects that were between twenty and forty years old or were associated with that period, although these products might still be available or people might still be alive. The relevance of childhood as a period for nostalgic memory was described by one woman in talking about the inclusion of the word "Forever" in her collage (Figure 3):

I put that in, I think, because a lot of the things that we remember as a child just keep going on for us forever, at least in our lifetime they are meaningful to us.

This sentiment was mirrored in the comments of another group, which viewed something as nostalgic only if it had touched their lives individually. Images were included only if they had personal meaning to at least one member of the group. This view of nostalgia is reflective of the definition offered by Davis (1979) in considering only direct, personal memories.

Another group viewed nostalgia more broadly and included references to more distant periods of American history, such as the Civil War and the women's suffrage movement (Figure 1). One woman justified their inclusion thusly:

I just remember a lot from history books in social studies in grade school, in middle school....it just seemed to be a focal point...just the women in the long dresses, its just so distinctive....but it's off to the side because, you're right, I wasn't there.



Although Davis (1979) maintains that personal experience is necessary in defining a relevant past for nostalgia, the collages seem to suggest that relevant past may also include situations and events outside the subject's personal experience. These phenomena are associated with the individual's past through learning or communication and then become available for nostalgic reflection. Instead, what may differ in these cases is the character of the nostalgia, rather than its presence or absence. For the subject quoted above, the costumes and demeanor of the women in the suffrage movement evoke nostalgia, but it is mixed with memories of learning about the subject in school.


Many of the images presented in the collages clearly refer to personal memories. For example, one of the subjects explained the inclusion of a large picture of a ham (Figure 4) in this way:

Those Easter Sunday dinners or, you know, dinners with your grandparents....always preparing big hams and turkeys...

Clearly, this image evokes a strong response involving personal memories for this woman. However, the images in the collages did not always hold personal meaning, but were sometimes chosen because of cultural or historical relevance.

One way to describe the images of nostalgia reflected in the collages is to classify them into four categories based on the degree to which they reflect individual or collective experience and the extent of direct experience with the object of nostalgia (Havlena and Holak 1995). The first class, personal nostalgia, is evidenced in the reference to holiday dinners with family. It reflects direct experience with the object of nostalgia where the meaning is unique to the individual. This is similar to what Baker and Kennedy (1994) term "real nostalgia." However, many of the collage images did not fit into this category. The other three classes of nostalgiaCinterpersonal nostalgia, cultural nostalgia, and virtual nostalgiaCwere implied by group members in describing and defending their collages.



Cultural nostalgia, while rooted in direct personal experience, is based on shared symbols, so that the resulting feeling of nostalgia reflects the individual's connection to other members of the culture. Interpersonal nostalgia results from indirect experience obtained through direct interpersonal contact and is essentially individual, rather than collective, in its focus. Through the recollections of family members or close friends one can almost feel personally connected to the experience. Davis (1979) refers to this as intergenerational nostalgia. Virtual nostalgia, dealing with indirect, collective experience, may involve one's own cultural history or may reflect a longing for a different cultural environment. The basis of virtual nostalgia is in nonpersonal communication, whereas interpersonal nostalgia is rooted in personal relationships with others who communicate their own nostalgia.

Interpersonal and virtual nostalgia are reflected in these collages through the presence of images related to American history. All the collages contain photographs of one or more members of the Kennedy family. Their presence was explained using references to both interpersonal and virtual nostalgia. One subject invoked interpersonal nostalgia as justification for the inclusion:

We were indirectly affected [by the Kennedy assassination] I think, because our parents and anyone older than us whenever they see that it just totally attracts their attention and really moves them....everybody remembers where they were when Kennedy got shot....and so it kind of affects you, too.

Clearly, for these young students, their indirect knowledge of the event through the recollections of parents and elders resulted in the experience of interpersonal nostalgia. For their parents and elders, however, the experience, with its collective emphasis, resembles cultural nostalgiaC"everybody remembers where they were."

Other subjects noted the importance of the event and its effect on them, although they had not been alive at the time. This is illustrated by one subject's reference to virtual nostalgia, in this case for an historical event:

Basically...it was very important in history...it has been romanticized in every type of mediaCin literature, in movies, in print, in books, in articles, there are clubs; I am sure that the Internet has its share now of conspiracy clubs...but it has just always, I mean, any age group knows about the Kennedys.



In all these collages virtual nostalgia was essentially historical in character, involving U.S. history. Images of other cultures (such as an ancestral homeland), either in the present or in the past, and of fantasy or fictional settings did not appear.

The difference between direct and indirect experience is highlighted by the subjects' reference to the presence of Princess Diana in one collage (Figure 1):

Princess Di, my God...we remembered...it was a big deal when she first got married...Now, especially in the news with all her unfortunate marital situations, you always go back to the time...Oh, when they first got married...Was she better off before she met him?

In contrast to the images of the Kennedy family, the picture of Princess Diana evokes vivid memories for the subjects related to their own past.

The clear distinction between personal and other classes of nostalgia was evident in the way some groups structured their collages. One group started the discussion of their collage by noting that the center of the collage contained images that related directly and were important to them personally, while the perimeter contained images that were related to society as a whole. They went on to describe the difficulty they experienced in positioning items that were both directly related to them and to the larger society as a wholeCitems that evoked cultural nostalgia.


Images involving people associated with memories of time in school were common. Three of the five collages included a photo of a cheerleader. One of the women mentioned that, although she had not been a cheerleader herself, the image was closely linked with her own memories of high school. Three of the collages also contained a photo of a young boy looking up at a blackboard containing a long arithmetic problem. Subjects mentioned that the photo stirred reminiscences of similar experiences as well as memories of washing the blackboards and of scraping chalk in elementary school. Another woman discussed the nostalgic memories of her own past evoked by a photo of a candy striper reading at a hospital bedside (Figure 4). In all these cases, the nostalgia was of a personal nature, although the subsequent discussion of the subject revealed its cultural components as various members of the groups discovered the similarities in their experiences.



Relationships figured prominently in the images. One group even mentioned explicitly that the collage was structured around a black-and-white photo of an older couple standing side by side, smiling, with glasses of wine in their hands (Figure 5). They imagined the couple reflecting on their own pleasant memories and experiencing their own nostalgia. Another photo of an older couple was positioned near the first. A second group included a photo of a young child with an adult, apparently the boy's father (Figure 4). The links to childhood and to the relationship with one's parents were cited by members of the group.


Certain products, generally associated with childhood, were present in all the collages. Food products, both branded and nonbranded, were present in every collage. One woman referred to the presence of orange juice during her childhood (Figure 1):

Minute Maid, frozen TropicanaCalways, as a child, my mom...we had the frozen orange juice thingCnever could figure out why frozen orange juice, but...it always was the case.

Another woman talked about a photograph of freshly baked bread (Figure 5):

That, actually, my mother baked bread every Saturday and the house just smelled of bread and that just brings it all back to me.

In some cases, individual brands were associated with family rituals or with holidays. Several subjects reported nostalgic associations with Jell-O:

Janet [another subject] and I bonded on that one, cause my mom always used to make Jell-O molds...always, every big holiday, Thanksgiving...get out that mold, do the layers...you know how you make that design with Jell-OCbut no more.

Aunt Jemima appeared in all the collages, in one case positioned directly at the center (Figure 3), and was mentioned by almost all the subjects as a vivid memory from childhood. Other brands were used by several groups as wellCCoca-Cola, Planter's peanuts, and Life cereal (with frequent references to Mikey and "Mikey likes it"). ChocolateCin the form of Nestle's Toll House cookies (paired with milk, of course), M&M's, and Hershey's candy barsCwas viewed as nostalgic, as was Campbell's soup. These were cited as comfortable symbols of home during childhood. Personal memories were mentioned in connection with all the food items.

One group included a photo of a young boy eating a slice of process cheese (Figure 4). A member of the group included it because it reminded him of an ad from his own past. During the presentation other group members corrected him about the subject of the original adCit was an advertisement for bologna, not for cheeseCbut the nostalgic association survived the change of product category, being driven instead by the overall look of the ad.

Some clothing items were also included in the collages. One group incorporated a photo of Buster Brown shoes, mentioning that they all could remember wearing them as kids. Another included a photo of No Nonsense pantyhose (Figure 1), since one member associated it with her teen years when she used to dress up. Compared to food, clothing was more often described in terms of the individual and was less likely to evoke references to family or social interaction.

Grooming and personal care products were also used in the collages. Ivory soap was included by one group because of personal associations, as well as the explicit intergenerational appeal in the ad itself (Figure 4). Other images included a baby playing with a toy boat in a bathtub, toothbrushes, and hairbrushes, all associated with childhood and adolescence. One collage contained a set of directions for tying a men's necktie, a learning experience that was considered to be a rite of passage for young men (Figure 1).

Products in other categories also appeared. Another group used a Marlboro advertisement, citing personal or family use of the brand in the past (Figure 1). Nostalgic associations with brands used or chosen by others in the family sometimes surfaced in unexpected ways. One man talked about his inclusion of Shell and Texaco signs in the collage (Figure 3):

Actually, I can remember as a kid looking at those signs for hours on end when there were gas shortages back in 1973...you know, when you had odd or even license plate numbers you would get gas.

In this case, the collective experience of the gas shortage during the 1970s resulted in personal nostalgic memories for this individual.

A photo of a rotary dial telephone appeared in more than one collage. In addition to memories of the "old-fashioned" design, several subjects mentioned the importance of the telephone in their teen years and the memories that the photo evoked.

Toys associated with the subjects' childhood figured prominently in the collages. Barbie, Raggedy Ann and Andy, building toys, and teddy bears were all present. In one case, a current toy reminded a subject of a slightly different toy she played with as a child (Figure 4):

We realize too that these aren't Lego's, but they reminded us of Lego's...we couldn't find the Lego's.


Baseball appeared in various forms in four of the five collages, positioned centrally in two of them. The groups noted the importance of baseball in their own pasts and in American popular cultural history, although the prominence of the image may also reflect the current sense of loss created by the baseball players' strike.

Photos of celebrities and entertainment figures, such as movie stars and musicians, were conspicuous in the collages. Characters, both human and cartoon (Disney and otherwise), from the subjects' childhood were used repeatedly. Images from the comics, television, and the movies included Superman, King Kong, Star Trek, Bonanza, and The Andy Griffith Show. Several subjects in one group discussed their memories of watching The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston on television every year at Easter.


Consumer collages may prove to be a useful method for researching imagery and its meaning. The nostalgia collages discussed in this paper offer insights into consumers' understanding of the structure and subjects of nostalgic experience. They contain examples of all four classes of nostalgia and the subsequent discussion of the collages by their creators confirms the existence of all four classes in consumers' minds.

Obviously, the content of the collages will be constrained by the images contained in the materials used by the subjects. Publications such as Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, or the National Enquirer might have provided images not available in the magazines used in this study. However, the range of images in the materials provided here was reasonably broad. Clearly, some subjects present in the magazinesCsuch as sports cars, designer clothing, laundry detergent, and basketballCdo not appear in the collages, while other images appear repeatedly across the collages. It is necessary for the researcher to ensure that a wide variety of images are presented for selection.

The twenty subjects who participated in this study were all American-born graduate students between the ages of 23 and 42. Future research could compare the imagery and meaning of nostalgia for other groups in the population. For example, does the imagery of nostalgia differ markedly for older consumers or do many of the same images manifest themselves? Although the images may be similar, the meanings may differ across groups.

Finally, the imagery contained in the collages may provide marketers with insights concerning the positioning of and associations with their own nostalgic brands. While psychological and sociological analysis of nostalgia as a phenomenon has concentrated on personal nostalgia, marketing has often used cultural nostalgiaCsuch as the release of The Brady Bunch MovieCand virtual nostalgiaCsuch as Disney's unsuccessful attempt to locate an American history theme park near Washington, D.C. The collages and the explanations attached to them may clarify the extent to which brands evoke personal nostalgia as opposed to cultural nostalgia. New ideas for evoking virtual nostalgia may be suggested. As such, the collages can aid in developing products or messages that may prove more satisfying to consumers in terms of creating nostalgic associations.


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Rook, Dennis W. and Sidney J. Levy (1983), "Psychosocial Themes in Consumer Grooming Rituals," in Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 10, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 329-333b.

Stern, Barbara B. (1992), "Nostalgia in Advertising Text: Romancing the Past," in John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 19, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 388-389.



William J. Havlena, Fordham University
Susan L. Holak, City University of New York-College of Staten Island


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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