The Commodification of Nostalgia


Artwork: Leonid Afremov

When we’re young, the world is laid out for us in a linear fashion.

We grow up following the paths we’re told or expected to, and find ourselves rewarded accordingly depending on how true we stick to them. In our youths, we interpret life as a series of actions and reactions–pursuits and rewards–that appear before us one-after-the-other like an RPG story arc.

Nostalgia functions as a sort of yearning for this time- not necessarily because we were told what to do, but because life operated as a series of linear goals and payoffs as dictated by some greater authority (such as parental figures or societal norms). As we grow older, though, it becomes hard to stomach that the paths available to us are without much guidance and entirely of our own forging.

So we begin to seek out stimuli that hark back to when our days seemed so inconsequentially mapped out.

Behavioural economics teaches us that we react to things first and justify them later. Post-rationalisation, as it’s known, explains a whole host of emotional biases that cloud our judgment of the world.

No judgment is more clouded than nostalgia. When we say that things were “better back in the day”, we do so because our memories are imperfect. We omit the boring and mundane in favour of the emotional peaks and troughs simply because they are more memorable.

Because of these biases, nostalgia is easily commodified and often tapped for effective marketing. Communal nostalgia is the idea that our memories are shared among others and leveraged through the collective celebration of some past thing. But this is little more than a retrograde fantasy.

It’s easy to believe that things were easier when we were young, because they were.

The simple fact is that highly emotional events, whether positive or negative, are always more memorable than any other kind. When we’re young and experiencing the world for the first time, every first interaction carries with it a degree of emotional intensity, and thus, memorability.

But when we allow nostalgia to cloud our judgment too much, we begin to think of the world in extremes–in black and white, highs and lows–all the way through to adulthood. These extremes can foster an ‘us versus them’ mentality in which we subconsciously sort people into ingroups and outgroups that gradually become more polarised.

A lot of modern communicatons are fueled by our seeing of the world in absolutes. They allow us to identify with a cause or belief quickly and with minimal mental resources. Are you left wing or right wing? A Christian of an Atheist? For equality or against? In a world of absolutes, there is no room for fence-sitting.

We communicate to and judge one another within these extremes because they are what is sold to us. Every day–online, on TV, in real-time–we are bombarded with extremifications. Everything is either fantastic or terrible, and if they are neither then they hardly exist at all.

Extremes and absolutes capitalise on the attention space that drives so much of modern marketing. Nostalgia is just one of these. Where tragedy and cynicism pull us down, nostalgia lifts us back into believing that life can be as good as it once was. Just look at “Make America Great Again”. Has there ever been a more effective marketing campaign to leverage communal nostalgia?

In recent times, we’ve seen a shift in how our feelings and memories are used to drive marketing campaigns.

Advertising has evolved beyond selling you the information necessary to make the right choice- or selling you desire- or even selling you happiness. Today, in the age of the attention space, effective advertising is about selling you the belief that whatever is on the table is what you require to meet the expectations of a life that is fulfilling and good.

You require this product to feel secure in yourself. You require it to feel validated and accepted by your peers. You require it in order to be perceived as a well-informed, hip, and savvy consumer. Ultimately, you require it to be loved.

Advertising is and always will be about appealing to the universal truths that govern the pursuit of our most fundamental wants and needs. Most of these truths are things we learnt growing up, which is what makes nostalgia such a powerful strategy. It’s our desire to return to order from chaos– to explicit direction from endless decision.

Because sometimes, waking up on a day off and looking out the window can produce more existential dread than any other of life’s pressures– simply because we can do anything, and no-one is standing over us to say “no”.


Adam By Adam