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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Using the Past To Sell the Present: Why Nostalgia-based Marketing Is Here to Stay

By Betsy Hnath

Most of us have experienced one: an advertisement that connects us to our childhood.

It could be the music, the wardrobe or even the setting, but regardless of the vehicle advertisers use to get us to travel back in time, we're usually happy to go for the ride. It's called "nostalgia marketing" and it's a trend that isn't going away.

Nostalgia — affection for objects and activities from an earlier period in one's life — is a tool marketing companies use to increase emotional engagement with products. Anything from a familiar song to a recognizable hairstyle can increase brand perception and retention.

Once a concept thought only applicable to older consumers reflecting on their youth, we now know nostalgia has no chronological boundaries.

"There is no age or time limit," said John B. Ford, professor of marketing and business at Old Dominion University. "You could feel nostalgic about a Thanksgiving dinner that happened three years ago, depending on your experiences."

Ford's extensive research on nostalgia marketing includes the development of a one-of-a-kind scale that measures if a person has experienced a certain event, and how much that event impacted them.

"We ask participants a series of questions to determine their level of reaction to specific situations," he said. "Does it make their heart race? Does it give them a sense of warmth?"

It's that type of data that is infused into advertising campaigns to develop emotional responses to products.

"Take Chevy, for example. 'Like a Rock' was a great campaign because, through their research, they knew the people who would buy their trucks probably listened to Bob Seger in their youth," Ford said. "By targeting that market with a piece of music that appealed to their sense of nostalgia, Chevy connected their product with a good feeling and they sold a lot of trucks."

Ford and his team also researched marketing efforts by the non-profit Public Broadcasting System.

"We analyzed a PBS fundraising campaign and looked at fundraising ads featuring Sesame Street versus those highlighting the variety of shows available on the channel," Ford said. "The Sesame Street ads were far more successful in getting people to donate money because they brought people back either to when they watched the show or when they watched it with their kids. Maybe even watching it with grandchildren. They made that personal connection to PBS."

Even if painful memories in our past are triggered by nostalgic ads, we tend to remember the good.

"Nostalgia generates both positive and negative emotions, but psychologically we like to stay in a positive mood state so we tend to screen for positive memories," Ford said.

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