“How to turn emotion into revenue” reads the headline of an article by global marketing firm Brafton. The title is a bit alarming, but it’s not uncommon. We know that people interact with products they feel strongly about. However, unlike many organizations, Brafton isn’t suggesting that companies do this with fear or rage. Instead, they recommend “nostalgia marketing,” a kind of branding which plays on the consumer’s desire for “the good old days,” whether this consumer is 18 or 81, and uses that to influence them on what to buy.
Why does nostalgia marketing work?
A lot of marketing and publicity today is dependent on shock value, sexualization, and general negativity. Even though it’s effective in getting our attention, it doesn’t feel good to constantly be engaging with things that upset us. Nostalgia marketing works the opposite way, by drawing on things that make us happy. For most of us, the toys, games, TV shows, and movies we liked when we were younger make us think of simple childhood. No matter our age, the things we liked as kids often have a warm place in our hearts.
Perhaps the most recent example of how effective nostalgia can be in creating revenue is the new Super Mario Bros. movie starring Chris Pine, Anya Taylor Joy, and Jack Black, among many others. As of this writing, the movie has only been out for nine days, and has already made around $230 million. It’s projected to earn between $500-$600 million by the end of its theatrical release. Some of this can be attributed to the great animation and the starpower of the cast (who doesn’t love a good Jack Black song?), but a large chunk of it is the result of adults wanting to see the characters they grew up with on the silver screen.
Why does this matter?
Sometimes we let our love for the characters and stories that shaped our childhoods turn into a relationship of trust with the company that’s making the new content about them. And if, because we really like the movies and shows that spark our nostalgia, we internalize the belief that the studios are personally invested in making us happy or, more importantly, upholding our individual values, we’re bound to be disappointed. Because the reality is, companies will orient their content towards the demographics that will pay them the most money. We can potentially spend a lot of time and energy trying to hold companies accountable to standards they just don’t care about.
Gen Z is probably less likely to trust companies and studios, but more likely to get upset when they see something they disagree with or think is wrong in their media. Gen Z places a high value on morality (though they might disagree with older generations on what exactly that means) and they are more likely than any other generation to try and hold large corporations accountable. But this usually doesn’t affect real change unless their backlash would potentially cost the companies money. Any anger they feel when a studio does something wrong and doesn’t face consequences may be genuine and perfectly valid, but it doesn’t matter to a faceless corporation.
So, what’s the takeaway?
There are two main reasons why understanding the effect nostalgia marketing has on us is important. First, since our anger alone can’t hurt or change the companies and studios we might be angry at, we’re only wounding ourselves if we let it become all we think about. Second, anger can shut down conversations about media that might be constructive and help us learn and grow.
Something that’s probably more important for us as parents to remember is that jumping directly to a strong negative emotion about a piece of media can make the conversation unsafe for the other person if they have a different opinion. If our teens come to us with questions or opinions they want to share and get feedback on, having an angry response without hearing what they have to say might convince them not to come to us when they’re testing out ideas. Even teens with strident opinions still want to be heard—they want discussions, not arguments. Asking them their thoughts and listening with empathy about the things they see in media opens the conversation up rather than shutting it down.
Even though we may not like what a studio has done with the stories and characters we care about, a conversation about how that affects us and what it says about our culture will be much more fruitful than one which ends in an angry reaction. It also helps us to remember what really matters, and who our discussions actually have an impact on. As parents, our children are the ones we need to be sharing these kinds of conversations with.