Nostalgia Plays

 

There's been some buzz going around about Internet Explorer's recent "Child of the 90's" advertisement. Some see it as average, while some were apparently going so far as to compare it to the fictional "Carousel" pitch from Mad Men. While I think most would say that's a bit of an overstatement, it's odd to me that this is getting much positive press. Most advertising that plays for nostalgia, while warm and cozy on the surface, can be pretty formulaic and insulting after closer inspection. This ad seems no different.

A + B + C = Your Childhood

It all starts with the reference. Getting a proper reference requires choosing your exact audience in both time and place. In today's case, Microsoft explicitly chose "Generation Y": American children of the 90's. Those children are the same group who spurred the domination of the iPod Mini in their high schools, the growth of the Mac in colleges, and the generations who bought the iPhone as they entered adulthood. Arguably, that market is the main buying demographic now. Microsoft wants those adults to pay attention, so they gotta hit their childhood hard. Let's look at some of the references:

Oregon Trail, Pogs, Pump-Up Shoes, L.A. Lights, Neon Colorways, Fanny Packs, Lisa Frank Folders, 56K Modems, Floppy Drives, Tamagatchis, Trolls, Lunchables, Walkman, Super Soaker, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Bowl Haircuts, etc.

I grew up in the 90's, wasn't it great that the commercial mentioned all those fun memories? Yep and none of those things were Internet Explorer. Repeat: None of the things referenced are Internet Explorer. Now, you know that fact when I write it out here in black and white. But your brain doesn't when you're watching the video. Your brain sees fun childhood memories and then free associates. That's good for Microsoft, but bad for you. Not to worry though, Microsoft is playing a short-term game, the side-effects are only temporary.

Remember When We Remembered?

"Nostalgia plays can be some of the greatest pieces of advertising."

But wait, didn't I just try and deflate this whole Microsoft thing for being nostalgic? Yes, because this is not a black and white issue. There is a grey area here. Nostalgia can work, and work responsibly, when the brand pushing the nostalgia is being nostalgic with you about themselves.

Let me give you an example of good nostalgia, this ad campaign by Macy's:

Here Macy's is looking back on themselves alongside the viewer. They are proud to show you their place in history. Macy's sees themselves (rightly so) as a strong brand with quality goods and a history of being well-liked to boot. Even if you don't like or shop at Macy's, they have not stopped being a decent department store for their audience. They have made a mark in popular culture and are showing it off. The nostalgia felt during this ad works because the payoff is that Macy's is still here today, same product quality and values. They're selling the fact that they haven't gone anywhere and still stayed strong in the process. They want you to feel glad that you were along for ride, shopped at their stores, and still can today.

Here's where nostalgia can be a double edged sword. When done well, it can stand the test of time. When done poorly, it's a one shot deal. Macy's has already used the aforementioned ad for years around Christmastime, and can continue to do so. The Macy' of the past will still be there — so the sentiment remains strong. On the flip side, Microsoft is inspiring nostalgia with their ad by using other people's products. If they were to have shown you their product (or company) from the 90's, it wouldn't have been nostalgic because the product wasn't worth looking back on — or at the very least, the memories wouldn't have been very fond. That's what I meant when I mentioned earlier that Microsoft is "playing a short-term game." This ad has no staying power, because as soon as you see it once, the reference is used up, and all you're left with is current day Microsoft. 

Look one more time — the Macy's ad stands beside the viewer every year and says, "Thanks for being with us, stop by again some time!" Each viewing is a reminder that Macy's is still here for you every year.

But Microsoft's ad says, "We were here with all this fun 90's stuff, but you left and got old! Why you'd leave us? Feel bad and come back." It takes all that nostalgia and twists it into regret by trying to cast doubt on your choices. It tries to make you assume that because the memory of the past "feels better" than the present it must also have "been better" than the present. And as we know, those are immensely different things.

Today Sucks But Yesterday Was Great.

"You didn't have a newsfeed full of farm animals, you we're busy feeding wild animals… A haircut didn't cost $60, it cost 4 minutes… You really had nothing to lose… You grew up, so did we. Reconnect with Internet Explorer."

By the end of the ad, you're probably left feeling nostalgic. Alone in the present. The trick's over. You have either decided to look at Internet Explorer, or you didn't. The hope is that you'll see Internet Explorer as a connection to the past, an old friend… but Internet Explorer wasn't even your friend back then, it was just the kid you used to get to his cool friend "the internet." Internet Explorer was all you had; you didn't choose it. You didn't have a newsfeed or Farmville because they didn't exist. You got a bowl haircut and "had nothing to lose" because it was cheap and you were a kid. You didn't know better.

When a business makes lazy references to generate nostalgia in this way, it represents what I think is a troubling notion: that the past was better than the present. Or that the past is somehow "more honest" than the present. It makes the present out as something to be disappointed with. In reality, the past was just as difficult as the present, the only difference is that you were too young to notice. You lacked the context someone older than you had about the time period. If a "Generation X" person sees this ad, they'll have a much different view of the 90's. In fact, most "Gen-X" members would probably say that many of the toys this Microsoft ad referenced were just fads trying to make a quick buck, no different than internet trends of today. Oh and I bet they know exactly why they stopped using Internet Explorer back then, and why they won't be checking it out any time soon.

Addendum

Now that I've done the whole analytical take on this, I'd like to take a personal moment and not mince words: I think this type of marketing is gross and shameless. It's the lazy work of a company that knows they have no way to sell you on the product they made, so instead they turn to milk the good nature of the past. Nostalgia is a strong, complex soup of emotions because we are so finite. It's the awareness of our mortality that makes it that much more potent. Nostalgia is a tool to be used sparingly and wisely. But for any company, much less Microsoft, to play to that feeling for quick profit is in poor taste. When a technology company, one that is supposed to be "forward-thinking," tries to sell you by looking back? I'd wager you should be less concerned with their present products and more concerned with their future.

Posted on January 25, 2013 and filed under Design Essays.