Opening a time machine to the past

News Editor, Aaron Hagey, and Opinion Editor, Emily Waitson discuss recapturing their childhood and nostalgia’s impact on daily emotions.

Nostalgia; the sentimental reminiscence that goes through your mind when you encounter a piece of your past, is perhaps one of the most powerful and motivating — yet uniquely consuming and volatile — emotions that adults can experience throughout their lives.

There are countless things that can trigger the wistful thoughts that are often brought on by this elusive emotional phenomenon: video games we played, television shows we watched, toys we played with and the music we used to listen. It reminds us of a childhood that has come and gone. Anything in your life that has created a strong connection with a significant or once arbitrary moment from your youth can evoke these nostalgic feelings and associations.

Despite the warm, fuzzy emotions that nostalgia can give us, it often acts as a pair of rose-coloured glasses that retroactively tint the past in an overly-optimistic way. It blurs the unpleasant and the mundane fillers that aren’t as memorable, making us yearn for what seemed like a stress-free, blissful existence that will never be attainable in the same way again.

Much like a daydream, nostalgia serves as a peephole through which we observe memories that seem like an idealized Disney cartoon of the past. It’s a place that has never really existed the way we remember it, except within the boundaries of our minds.

Millennials seem to cling to their pasts with forceful devotion and fierce dedication to the idea that we grew up in the “best” generation. They were born into a world where technology wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now — Windows 95 was the highlight of the internet age at the time and the dial-up tone still rings strong in our ears — and we experienced a joy that feels singular and unmatched to this brief period of time.

Simple pleasures like renting VHS tapes from Blockbuster, painstakingly picking out your five-buck purchase at the Scholastic Book Fair or the surprise of getting a pack of Fruit Gushers in your lunch bag seem like long-forgotten moments in our personal histories that we wasted, because we didn’t appreciate them to the extent that we should have at the time. With the future so murky and uncertain and our paths leading to many unknowns, some of us seem to be in a perpetual state of chasing our youth in order to avoid facing what’s in front of us head-on.

What businesses have difficulty with, however, is finding the balance between historically accurate points in time and the idealized way people tend to look at the past, while still bringing elements into it that suit a modern audience.

With resurgences of old TV shows, re-releases of once popular snack foods and throwback events that touch on the music and pop culture of decades long past, it’s easy to see how companies are utilizing nostalgia in order to encourage consumers to buy their products.

Brad Davis, associate professor of marketing at the Lazaridis School of Business & Economics at Laurier, focuses on brand strategy and consumer behaviour, looking critically at the kind of tactics that are utilized in order to sway buyers.

While he understands that most decisions —   especially purchases — are emotion based, there are well thought out strategies behind the businesses who are able to tap into that emotion in order to encourage interest in their products. The use of nostalgia as a marketing tool has stayed relatively cyclical because it is known to work time and time again.

“There’s an appeal to going retro because they know it worked once … There’s a feeling that it’s a little bit safer, creatively. The other side of it is there’s always a nostalgia for the past. The past is always nicer than the future,” Davis said.

“[Companies understand that] we look back at the past with kind of with a sense of how things were easier or better than. The past always has a certain appeal to it, so that’s kind of a constant. That tends to increase on occasion when we are more anxious about where we are now or in the future.”

Nostalgia is, in its most basic form, emotional comfort food for the mind: something which allows us to travel back to a simpler, less complicated and often happier period in our lives. A point in time when we were less burdened by problems like paying rent, passing exams, tending to responsibilities and the weight of a well-balanced life — one that we often wish to return to in moments of reflection.

“Sometimes we kind of [experience] this consumer equivalent of going back to your blankie — going back to those comfort products of things before. We like to retreat back to when we felt safe. There’s a sort of emotional hook to it,” Davis said.

What businesses have difficulty with, however, is finding the balance between historically accurate points in time and the idealized way people tend to look at the past, while still bringing elements into it that suit a modern audience.

“Nobody wants to drive the old Volkswagen Beetle, because [in reality] it was a piece of crap,” Davis said.

“We don’t really want to literally go back to the past, we want to just capture that spirit or that essence of it. So companies will do that — they’ll bring back the shape, the form, the spirit, but with more of the modern amenities [like the Beetle].”

Davis says that one of the factors that drive people to, for example, associate certain brands with childhood memories, is that they are categorized into “family brands,” which are associated with youth — like comfort foods, such as Kraft Dinner.

“We eat them because it evokes feelings of long ago, of mom and dad — where we didn’t have mortgages and we didn’t have other [things] to worry about. You’re not just eating the food, you’re kind of eating that era, that time,” he said.

“The whole notion of the ‘comfort food’ is [that when] you’re depressed … you go back to that kind of stuff because it makes you feel that little bit of escapism, back to when … it was an easier time for you.”

There have been scientific studies done to examine what products create certain links in the minds of consumers, as well as what sections of the brain light up under examination.

“They did neurological tests with Coke and Pepsi and one of the things that they found with Coke is that, when people go to drink it, what lights up is the sense of community. People prefer Coke because it evokes that sense of community and being part of something bigger. When they drink Pepsi, it’s the reward centre, because it’s sweet,” Davis said.

As Coke’s infamous 1971 advertisement jingle warmly sings, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” it directly targets the community associations people connect with their brand, which is what seems to separate it from a drink like Pepsi.

One of the other problems with targeted nostalgia marketing is the difficulty that lies in navigating the delicate balance between what Davis refers to as the “generational ownership of certain products or brands,” which can create negative associations for newer generations who aren’t interested in brands that they see as “old.”

“Every generation wants to distinguish itself from the one before it … so it’s difficult when you’re trying to appeal to a younger generation [and have] a brand that was kind of owned by a past generation, that defined them,” Davis said.

“People who engage in nostalgia are actually not more past-focused overall. They can often take this little dip into nostalgia to become more future-focused: to become more hopeful and inspired and motivated to pursue goals in the future,” Wilson said.

“The problem with appealing to a new generation or using an old brand is that it was owned by a past generation [like Cadillacs] … Brands are very psychological: in that, if you perceive this to be an old person’s brand, there’s no way in hell you’re going to sell it to a younger generation,” he said.

There is a significant amount of psychological science behind the phenomena of nostalgia that provides an optimistic, yet cautious, look into this sensation that can feel almost addictive in nature.

Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Laurier and Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Successful Societies program, specializes in social psychology and has been studying the concepts of self and identity over time, especially in the ways people think about their past selves and how people project that image into their future.

Wilson sees nostalgia as a “bittersweet” emotion, one which seems to vary in either the bitterness or sweetness depending on the individual. However, research in social psychology has started to identify how nostalgia can actually serve positive social and emotional functions.

“Even though there is this aching or bittersweet aspect to nostalgia sometimes, it’s actually associated with a lot more positive emotions for people. People report experiencing nostalgic memories or remembering things in a nostalgic way especially at times when they’re feeling bad,” Wilson said.

It is during these times of sadness, then, that these memories pop up, acting as a calamine lotion to soothe the itch of melancholy that is being experienced.

“So when we’re experiencing nostalgic memories, we tend to be pulling out the things that were really meaningful or positive to us. Because of that, it allows us to have this moment or sense of feeling connected and often loved and to enhance our feeling of meaning and to have all these positive, powerful feelings,” Wilson said.

As for when we are most vulnerable to these feelings of nostalgia, she believes that the answer to that is more complicated than it may seem. Instead of occurring most frequently at specific times, it instead tends to occur throughout our lifespans.

“There’s actually a different perspective of research that suggests that, as you get older, you’re more likely to look back on your more distant past — there’s something called the ‘reminiscence bump’,” Wilson said.

“People are much more likely to remember things from their early adulthood and late teens when they get older because that’s the period of identity formation.”

However, when it comes to young adults, nostalgia marketing tends to focus on the younger generations because they are more susceptible to a number of factors: including being open to shifting self-identity, changing themselves or their brand loyalties and the presence of higher disposable income.

“Identities are a lot more fluid at that time and a lot of people haven’t settled on exactly what core features of their identity they’re going to stick with, so it’s a time of transition … Young adults are often going through periods of transition, so they might be turbulent or stressful times … things that tend to happen in young adulthood,” Wilson said.

One of the potential issues Wilson points out is how, in the age of social media, having everything recorded can leave us grasping for genuine sentimentality and meaning, especially when creating worthwhile memories.

“There’s some research about how, if you spend much of your time interacting by taking images … that can lead to impoverished memory for the events … you’re kind of imagining it from this third-person perspective of ‘how good is this shot gonna look’ as opposed to actually experiencing all of the positive benefits that you get in the moment,” she said.

Though that may seem daunting, she doesn’t want that to limit people’s ability to indulge in moments of nostalgic bliss, as one of the common, but false, perceptions of nostalgia is that it isn’t good to live in the past.

“People who engage in nostalgia are actually not more past-focused overall. They can often take this little dip into nostalgia to become more future-focused: to become more hopeful and inspired and motivated to pursue goals in the future,” Wilson said.

While we live in a time that seems to be dually focussed on the simplicity of the past and the rapid progressiveness of the future, the occasional indulgence in the little things that made our respective childhoods so fond to return to is a comforting emotional tool to use.

As long as we strive to live in the moment, rather than channel too much energy into curating the picture-perfect memory, nostalgia seems to be the perfect sentimental Band-Aid.

Don Draper from Mad Men summarized it best: “Nostalgia – it’s delicate but potent … In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone … It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again … to a place where we know we [were] loved.”

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