Sometimes, recycling an old idea is better than creating a new one altogether. While decades in the 20th century have been defined by specific fashion, music and entertainment trends, the 21st century has experienced a different form of cultural development, due to of the rise of the Internet. More specifically, the use of social media as an advertising tool facilitates the remixing and sharing of product/service concepts within incredibly short periods of time. However, this also increases the difficulty of creating original marketing content that piques the interest of media audiences who are constantly exposed to information. Despite this, brands are taking advantage of these rapid changes by restructuring their promotional strategies to bring consumers back to “simpler times”.
It is important to note, however, that their focus on using retro aesthetics is not intended to hook those who actually lived through these reminiscent time periods, but rather a younger demographic: Generation Z, otherwise known as Gen Z. This paper will explore the connection between vicarious nostalgia marketing and Gen Z—specifically how the lifestyles and popular media (music, movies & TV shows) of previous decades are romanticized in new products to foster consumerism amongst young audiences.
Nostalgia—the longing for things of the past—is a compound word deriving from two Greek terms: nostos (returning home) and algos (pain) (Cui 126). Formerly used within medical contexts to describe the condition of homesickness amidst soldiers (Margalit 272; Sullivan 585), the term currently refers to an individual’s idealized yearning for events they once lived.
In the realm of advertising, nostalgia is often utilized as a marketing tactic that can elicit positive emotions amongst consumers to prompt the purchase of products that remind them of the past (Cui 126-127). This strategy typically relies on targeting demographics who have lived through a specific time period, making them more prone to buy an item based on their previous sentimental connection to the object (Wildschut, “Nostalgia: Content, Triggers” 990). While these advertising strategies have typically been applied to older audiences, like the Baby Boomers and Generation X, younger consumers are also responsive to nostalgia, albeit within different contexts (Goulding 546). Studies within consumer behavior scholarship specifically points to the fact that nostalgic marketing can allude to “periods within the consumer’s own experience… to eras that predate the consumer’s lifespan” (Havlena and Holak 325).
I will focus on nostalgia “predating the consumer’s lifespan”, to discuss how newer generations decode and form strong connections with imagery and artifacts from former decades, despite never having originally experienced them. In particular, Generation Z’s upbringing within a highly mediated world has reshaped how companies use nostalgia advertising strategies. These changes have resulted in a departure from nostalgia marketing based on personal experiences, to vicarious nostalgia marketing. This advertising approach argues that living through a specific time period is no longer a prerequisite for feeling nostalgic about it (Goulding 542). With this in mind, it is imperative to take note of Gen Z’s defining traits and the factors that prompt them to make nostalgic product purchases.
2. Defining Generation Z
Categorized as the demographic born roughly between 1996 and 2010, Generation Z (sometimes called Post-Millennials or the iGeneration/iGen) are recognized as true “digital natives”, as they are the first generation to be born into a world where the Internet and mobile devices have almost always been widely available (Turner 104; Dimock). Their habits and ideologies have been significantly shaped by a combination of technology-based cultural changes, such as the introduction of smartphones, the rise of social media platforms, (Figure 1) drastic economic and political events (The Great Recession, 9/11, and the Iraq War) and issues surrounding climate change (A Generation Without 4; Petro).
Figure 1 Late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, at the 2007 MacWorld Conference introducing the iPhone—one of the first commercially available touchscreen smartphones with Internet-browsing capabilities (Sakuma).
The impact of these events has ultimately fostered a cautious and pragmatic generation, (Williams 59; Davis et al. 3; Piore) whose understanding of the world is in constant flux with the information they receive and post online (Generation Z: Unique 5).
3. Marketing Nostalgia to a New Audience
At face value, the realistic and wary nature of Generation Z may initially appear as a setback to advertisers accustomed to the idealistic purchasing tendencies of Millennials (Rodriguez 32; Hertz). Nonetheless, these attributes are what make Gen Z prime candidates for vicarious nostalgia-based advertising. In particular, nostalgia can be used to provide the following: (1) a form of emotional escapism, and (2) authentic experiences to a generation overwhelmed and jaded by modern oversaturated media environments.
4. Emotional Stimuli: Identity and Relatability
Growing up alongside the commercialization of the World Wide Web and the emergence of social media, Post-Millennials are living in a period that is mainly characterized by its digital interactivity and instant access to a wide array of information (The Everything Guide 15).
Though useful, this ever-growing database of digital content and constant social media connectedness can also prove to be overwhelming and isolating to the iGeneration (Beck and Wright 22, 25; Miles). Drawing on the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America report, Gen Z participants ranked the highest stress levels (5.8 out of 10) in comparison to their Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer predecessors (6). Moreover, other studies show that constant technology and social media usage are positively linked to increased rates of chronic stress, anxiety, and depression among Post-Millennials (Augner and Hacker 438, 440; Origin 6).
This is where vicarious nostalgia marketing comes into play. The need to belong is a fundamental human trait (Baumeister and Leary 497, 522), but factors like alienation and anxiety inhibit people from feeling connected/capable of fitting in with others (506). While they may be negative traits, from a marketing standpoint, loneliness and apprehension can make consumers more likely to become nostalgic and allow them to revel in idealized visions of the past (Merchant and Rose 2621; Wildschut et al., “Nostalgia as a Repository” 574, 576). Taking this into consideration, companies target these emotional vulnerabilities of Gen Z by using vicarious nostalgia marketing to emphasize the positive aspects of simplicity within a retro product that contrasts the alienating complexities of present-day digitally-overloaded environments.
A prime example of this appeal to emotion is exhibited through the sale of cassette players and tapes by American youth lifestyle retailer, Urban Outfitters. While the sound quality and storage capacity of 8mm cassettes pales in comparison to that of .MP3 players, Urban Outfitters capitalizes on the vintage nature of these objects to create a romanticized image about experiencing the raw, tangible feeling of listening to music back in the 1980s (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 Screenshot of “Retro Shoebox Cassette Tape Recorder + USB Player” Product Page. Urban Outfitters, URBN, 2019, www.urbanoutfitters.com/shop/retro-shoebox-cassette-tape-recorder-usb-pl....
Additionally, the cassette player product page on the Urban Outfitters website uses the following description to continue emphasizing the device’s nostalgic properties: “Old school cassette tape recorder that puts the power of the OG mix tape back in your hands…play your favorite cassettes to listen like it’s the ‘80s all over again.”
To push this narrative further, the company also collaborates with popular artists to offer exclusive product runs of cassette albums under its “UO Exclusive” label as a way of merging modern Gen Z music preferences with the nostalgic qualities of cassettes (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 Screenshot of “Vinyl + Cassettes.” Product Page. Urban Outfitters, URBN, 2019. www.urbanoutfitters.com/cassettes.
5. Fostering a Sense of Authenticity
Technologically-adept since childhood, Post-Millennials are accustomed to sifting through large amounts of media daily (Francis and Hoefel 4). This quick-to-filter behavior has made iGen very particular with regards to the type of content they decide to consume and share. More importantly, Gen Z consumers are more likely to discern real, personalized branded media from disingenuous advertising (Patel). According to Davis et al., Post-Millennials prefer authentic, transparent brands that encourage individuals to interact with them (6). In turn, tangible, real-world experiences that can be easily shared online take precedence for this generation (14).
Taking all of these elements into account, vicarious nostalgia marketing can help bridge the gap between brand authenticity and Generation Z skepticism by actually involving audiences in the narrative of the product being promoted. Rather than merely advertising a product as “old school,” companies can create interactive campaigns that invite customers to actually experience the nostalgia of a specific time period. This tactic would build consumer trust and a personalized connection to the brand in question.
Recently, the online streaming network, Netflix, has been using vicarious nostalgia advertising to maintain viewership, and spark audience interest both within and beyond its digital platform (Netflix Nostalgia 25, 30). Among several advertising initiatives the company has held since its inception, the company’s recent collaboration with Coca-Cola provides an excellent example of experiential marketing that leverages nostalgia to appeal to Gen Z viewers. To advertise the third season premiere of Stranger Things– a sci-fi television series set in 1985– Netflix rolled out a promotional trailer touting the resurrection of a controversial Coca-Cola product from that same year: New Coke (see Figure 4).
Figure 4 Still from STRANGER THINGS Season 3 Extended "New Coke" Promo (00:05)
Following the video’s release, Coca-Cola and Netflix announced that a series of Stranger Things vending machines would be set up in select major cities across the United States. Once there, fans could purchase limited edition New Coke cans (see Figure 5), scan a QR code on the side of the product with their phones to gain access to exclusive Stranger Things content, and be entered to win a prize pack from the TV series (Locker; “The Upside-Down”) (see Figure 6).
Figure 5 Photograph of an Upside-Down Stranger Things-themed New Coke Vending Machine in New York City. Coca- Cola Journey, The Coca-Cola Company, 21 May 2019, www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/new-coke-and-netflix-take- viewers-back-to-1985-for-stranger-things.
Figure 6 Screenshot of Coke.com Sip & Scan® mobile interface with Stranger Things promotional content. IMI, Internet Marketing Inc., 3 July 2019, www.internetmarketinginc.com/blog/upside-down-marketing-with-stranger-th....
Also, a Coca-Cola/Stranger Things ‘80s-themed arcade pop-up was established in London, England, promoting both the series and Coca-Cola products (Gill). Consumers were encouraged to play 1980s arcade games, and the first 800 visitors were given a limited-edition Coca Cola x Stranger Things soda can (see Figures 7 and 8).
Figure 7 Photograph of Coca-Cola x Stranger Things Arcade pop-up storefront. Hypebae, Hypebeast Limited, 11 July 2019, hypebae.com/2019/6/stranger- things-3-coca-cola-can-london-arcade-pop-up-shoreditch.
Figure 8 Photograph of Coca-Cola x Stranger Things Arcade pop-up interior. Hypebae, Hypebeast Limited, 11 July 2019, hypebae.com/2019/6/stranger-things- 3-coca-cola-can-london-arcade-pop-up-shoreditch.
Although Gen Z viewers may have never heard of New Coke before Stranger Things, the prevalence of this campaign lies in how it moved between real-world and digital spaces to provide an engaging, authentic experience that emphasized the nostalgia of a time period they never experienced themselves. In this instance, authenticity from vicarious nostalgia derives from the ability of a product/brand to establish a sense of trustworthiness through its age and tangibility through real-world experiences.
While every generation witnesses cultural events and trends that encapsulate their youth, Gen Z differs from other cohorts, as they are coming of age in an environment where their defining moments often occur at a crossroads between technological advancements and the reiterated collective highlights of former generations. Understanding Gen Z’s connection to retro media from a psychological perspective can ultimately allow companies to create uniquely-catered brand experiences that cultivate the emotional power of nostalgia.
This may involve studying how different sources of nostalgia (i.e. older pieces of pop culture or direct parental/family history influences) affect certain age groups and the impact of leveraging one or a combination of these stimuli when designing marketing campaigns for Post-Millennials. Nevertheless, it is also important to note the effects of recycling media for new generations and its overall durability. Regardless of the time period, all trends emerge and fade in cycles.
Though nostalgia branding may be an effective marketing strategy today, companies must ultimately pay attention to the tendencies of their target audiences and how their preferences change as they age and grow out of trends.
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