Skip to main content
Back

Stay in touch!

Sign up to receive our latest thinking straight to your inbox each month.

Nostalgia is what it used to be

Woman taking a polaroid on the beach

The Brits have a typically understated expression: 'what with one thing and another'.

In a nutshell

  1. We seek comfort in times of stress and uncertainty - and nostalgia is a powerful source of comfort.
  2. Nostalgia is an effective tool in communications because it makes us feel good - more hopeful, more future-focused. 
  3. But there are Ts and Cs for using nostalgia: be careful about what it conjures, and how it is anchored to people's lives.

It's employed to cover everything from a minor nuisance to a world war. And, of course a pandemic. But even the Brits are finding the ‘one thing or another’ a challenge to the stiff upper lip, as the consequences of Covid impacts life for everyone. So, it’s not surprising to see the that 2020 UK TV ads offer emotional comfort making a big mark this Christmas.

Comfort is what we seek in times of stress and uncertainty (everything from comfort eating to curling up with a blanket on our knees). One of the sources of comfort is nostalgia, and smart advertisers are leveraging this. DFS Sofas have brought back Wallace and Gromit, ASDA are leveraging the Christmas classic, ‘What Christmas Means to Me’ by Stevie Wonder, and Sainsbury's have created a series of stories based on memories of Christmas past. Disney has released a global Christmas ad that tells the story of the bond between a grandmother and her granddaughter, using the traditions that connect them through the years.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool in communications

Advertisers are mirroring the huge spike around the world of people rewatching old TV programmes for their nostalgic buzz. Nostalgia can be a powerful tool in communications - not just because people like it, but also because of how it makes people feel. Academic studies show that nostalgia has a positive effect upon us. It’s a way to harness the past internally to endure change and create hope for the future. It makes us feel more positive, more hopeful and more future looking.

The future bit may come as a surprise. It’s because positive memories of the past make us believe that we can re-create those experiences in the future. And that’s the frame of mind that we want to create for our customers at the point when they are thinking about our brand.

The future bit may come as a surprise. It’s because positive memories of the past make us believe that we can re-create those experiences in the future. And that’s the frame of mind that we want to create for our customers at the point when they are thinking about our brand. Being associated with these feelings is only going to be good for the way the brand is coded in our memory.

But all nostalgia isn't the same

Nostalgia that surfaces fond memories in our own lives is the good type. It works especially well when it is anchored to positive childhood memories because they are closely associated with comfort and love. But later life memories can work well too when they capture special moments – ‘firsts’ for example.

Nostalgia can be used to convey feelings other than comfort. Excitement, memories of a thrilling experience or a sense of achievement are all within the reach of creative uses of nostalgia.

Whereas, when people crave nostalgia that heroes a past time period – the eponymous ‘good old days’ - it is indicative of negative feelings such as despondency, alienation and even depression. We have seen some of this play out in the US where among some people who feel disenfranchised there is a belief that things were better in the past. If brands use the ‘Good Old Days’ style of nostalgia they risk aligning with negative emotions even though people might like to see that style of imagery.

The terms and conditions for using nostalgia

What with one thing and another, evoking the comfort of positive memories is clearly the way to go. For brands thinking of using nostalgia, the T&Cs should include a caveat about what the nostalgia is conjuring and how it is anchored to people’s lifetimes.

Read more in our Terms and Conditions series:


Brand Metaphors Need Terms and Conditions

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

Discover more content

back to top

Stay in touch!

Stay in touch!

Sign up to receive our latest thinking straight to your inbox each month.