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Stayin’ Alive: Why Nostalgia Is Always in Style

June 13, 2022 • John Haffey

“Nostalgia is denial,” claims Paul, the cultured, fiancee-stealing heel in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris. “It’s denial of the painful present,” he opines while strolling through the historic gardens at the Palace of Versailles. While the scene is written to be intentionally ironic, does Paul actually have a point? Is nostalgia a form of dangerous escapism, or is it simply harmless daydreaming? Either way, there’s no denying the fact that it’s a powerful emotion. As a result, nostalgia is a strong selling tool—whether you’re talking about automobiles or entertainment, you name it and it’s been refreshed and remastered. Why has this been so effective? Is it truly because they don’t “make ’em like they used to?” Or is there perhaps something deeper, and maybe even scientific, about this golden-age thinking?

Is Nostalgia Escapism?

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Despite Paul’s snobbiness, there is actually a kernel of truth in what he says. Nostalgia transports people to a different time and place. Even if just for a moment, we can replace today’s problems and challenges with the greener pastures of yesteryear. Psychologists view nostalgia, in moderation, as an overwhelmingly positive emotion. It reduces stress, improves self-esteem and helps build self-worth. Given that nostalgia often arises during times of depression and anxiety—such as a pandemic—it can also be a useful tool to help people reset and cope with challenges. All of which is to say that retrospection can trigger a deep and overwhelmingly positive emotional escape that many enjoy and seek out. One easy way to trigger and experience this is through tangible items.

You Spin Me Right Round

Record player nostalgic

One example of nostalgia as exhibited by today’s post-pandemic consumers is the popularity of vinyl records. Since music formats have shifted from analog to digital over the past 20 years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that vinyl records have been relegated to attics and yard sales. Heaven knows the White Sox made the same mistake. However, vinyl record sales have shot up 50 percent in the past year alone, building on an already meteoric rise over the past five years. Amazingly, vinyls were responsible for 38 percent of all record sales in 2021, and record shops are now worried about maintaining inventory. But why are folks embracing vinyl records—even those who never experienced the format’s original era? Part of it is due to a more enjoyable listening experience. Audio fidelity on vinyl is high, and since listeners are all but required to listen to a full album as opposed to just a hit single, it’s a chance to discover music that might not get as much mainstream play—and experience it in the context that the artist intended. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Emotionally, there is also something appealing about the physicalness of records, the artistry of setting a needle and the craftsmanship of many stereo players. For those who grew up in the vinyl age, this brings listeners back to a time with bigger hair and fewer worries. For newer listeners, going retro offers an opportunity to be different and swim against the tide of the digital age.

And it’s not just music. Flared jeans, once a product of high ’70s fashion, are in vogue again. And much like the recent vinyl wave, the style’s resurgence is rooted equally in practical and emotional factors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people began to opt for roomier and more casual clothing. Coupled with the fashion industry’s push for more inclusive styles to fit all body types, this meant that roomy bell bottoms were ripe for a comeback. However, there’s also an element of individuality involved in opting for this style. It’s still not mainstream and may be too avant-garde for many wearers, but the retro look offers a chance to consciously (or subconsciously) stand out against today’s commercial masses. 

Turning Back the Clock

However, what happens when large corporations start channeling their retro too? Embracing nostalgia doesn’t alway mean needing to find something that’s genuinely old. Sometimes, it just needs to look like it is. A recent example of modern nostalgia is Burger King’s 2021 rebranding. When seeking a fresh, new look that embodied the organization’s vision for the future, what did marketing executives do? Turn back the clock, of course. By developing a color palette, typeface and visual style heavily inspired by its ’80s and ’90s branding, Burger King hopes to entice parents who fondly remember biting into a Whopper with their own little legs swinging in a booth.

And the list goes on and on. Classic cars fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions. The 2022 Super Bowl halftime show featured hip-hop and rap icons from 30 years prior. New Jordan sneakers are intentionally being conditioned to look old. These examples demonstrate the staying power of good craftsmanship combined with an emotional connection. For brands, authentically channeling their inner retro can be a golden ticket. For consumers, going vintage is a chance to experience the joys of yesteryear while being fun, fresh and different. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to feed my Tamagotchi.


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