There Is Almost Nothing Nineties Nostalgia Can’t Sell, Because Of Science


See that picture, above, is from Calvin Klein’s new ad campaign, which looks almost exactly like Calvin Klein’s old ad campaign, because our great nation is incapable of leaving the nineties behind us. Fun fact: this is actually what Faulkner meant when he said that the past “isn’t even past.” He was talking about what Marky Mark would let get between him and his Calvins:

Calvin Klein is firing on all the nostalgia cylinders. The original ads starred Kate Moss; this reboot Kate’s kid half-sister Lottie Moss as the model. The photographer, Michael Avedon, is the grandson of Richard Avedon, who shot those classic Brooke Shields images. The clothes are part of a Calvin Klein/My Theresa collaboration called the Re-Issue Project, nine pieces of nineties normcore. Many of the celebrities shilling the rebooted goods—Harry Styles, Kendall Jenner, Iggy Azaela—were barely out of diapers when that CK-banded underwear-above-your-jeans look was first fashionable. The younger Moss, a 16 year old, wasn’t even alive when the iconic 1992 ads were released.


CREDIT: Calvin Klein

At the risk of sounding redundant, nostalgia in advertising is nothing new, though some techniques are more obvious than others:

Pepsi, by the way, is a repeat offender. Last year they hoped we’d get excited over a nostalgia-for-old-school-Beyonce ad, which I guess assumes we already miss the Bey from less than a decade ago. They’ve made two ads that are built entirely on the premise that audiences will be nostalgic… for old Pepsi commercials. There’s the Cindy Crawford one above and this through-the-years themed Britney Spears spot.

But how effective are these ploys, really? Does nostalgia really get people to buy products? Washington State University marketing professors David Sprott and Darrel Muehling conducted a study to examine three things: if advertisements can prompt nostalgic feelings in consumers, if that nostalgia resulted in a positive feeling, and if consumers translated that positive feeling into a favorable opinion of the brand. Even though research demonstrated subjects who had nostalgic thoughts “tended to exhibit more favorable attitudes toward the advertised brand than those who did not,” the study also “found the use of nostalgic cues to generate significantly more personal thoughts—both positive and negative in nature—than did the non-nostalgic ad,” Sprott told the Washington State University Research News.

Sprott went on to say that “consumers may strongly desire to return to their pasts, but be confronted with the realization that they can’t.” Nostalgia is bittersweet by definition: a longing for a pleasurable point in the time-space continuum to which you can never return. Of course, if you watch Mad Men, you already knew that.

So if nostalgia inspires these conflicting feelings, what place does it have in advertising, the sunny, happy alternate universe where no problem can’t be cleaned up with the right brand of paper towel?

In 2006, Jason Leboe-McGowan, a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, conducted a study: “On misattributing good remembering to a happy past: An investigation into the cognitive roots of nostalgia.” Remembering, he found, causes humans to feel pleasure—whether or not the thing they’re remembering is good.

“People get a charge out of the transportive experience of remembering,” he explained to me by phone. “I think that nostalgia is just one aspect of that enjoyment that people get from playing with what their minds can do… It’s kind of like when you’re watching a trivia show, like Jeopardy. Being able to come up with the answer feels good. When you’re trying to remember something, and you remember a detail, that feels good too, for the same reason. Your mind solves the puzzle, and that feels great.”

Because it’s that clicking feeling of putting pieces together that incites the joy—not necessarily the joyful nature of the memory itself—even a negative or neutral memory can spark a warm feeling.

“Anything that stimulates detail coming to mind about something that has to do with the past should give a positive emotional reaction to people,” said Leboe-McGowan. “That doesn’t mean it has to come from reality or their own life. Like with this ad campaign, anything that captures a person’s imagination about the past is going to deliver that same kind of positive response.”

Makes sense, given that the nostalgia these Calvin Klein ads inspire requires a kind of willful misremembering. Kate Moss, for her part, has since gone on the record to say that she regretted taking part in the photo shoot. Being made to pose topless when she was still underage—on her own and atop Mark Wahlberg, then of Marky Mark fame—caused her to have a nervous breakdown:

“I had a nervous breakdown when I was 17 or 18, when I had to go and work with Marky Mark and Herb Ritts. It didn’t feel like me at all. I felt really bad straddling this buff guy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I thought I was going to die.”

But for consumers, even those who are aware of Moss’s remorse, it’s still possible to associate something good with these throwback images. “Objectively, for example, the Middle Ages were horrifying in terms of violence, life expectancy, infant mortality,” said Leboe-McGowan. “But you can show somebody a sword or a costume from the Middle Ages, and it captures their imagination and all the romantic things they know will come to mind. Even people who are aware of the violence and the crushing poverty people lived in—that would come to mind as well, but it’s the transportive nature of that…that gives you a positive jolt.”

“If Calvin Klein’s goal is to convince people that it’s timeless, culturally iconic through time, this is not a bad idea,” he said. Not so much “if they want to present themselves as ‘this is new and nothing like what your parents had anything to do with.'”

This ad might be most appealing to the very people who are too young to remember the nineties at all. “There’s almost more freedom if the person didn’t actually live through it,” said Leboe-McGowan. “Because there’s no reality to taint everything.”