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Contact: Darrel Muehling, WSU College of Business and Economics, 509/335-0924, darrel@wsu.edu, David Sprott, WSU College of Business and Economics, 509/335-6896, dsprott@wsu.edu

WSU Researchers Explore Nostalgia’s Growing Impact on Advertising


A study by WSU Marketing Professors David Sprott (l) and Darrel Muehling (r) shows the use of nostalgia in advertising is an effective way to reach consumers. The researchers expect nostalgia may play an even greater role in marketing nationally as America’s 78 million baby-boomers begin to hit 60 years of age.

PULLMAN, Wash. - Whether by positioning their message over the familiar tracks of 20-year-old pop tunes or invoking by-gone eras in images that mimic old black and white films, advertisers are increasingly urging America's consumers to "remember how good things used to be."

It's a wistful trend in advertising that seems to be most evident during the holiday season. It employs a wide range of nostalgia-based messages and creative techniques to evoke an emotional response from consumers. And while scant data exists to explain what makes such ads effective, the very fact that the trend continues suggests it's a useful weapon in the battle for market share.

"If nostalgic cues in advertising weren't working, we simply wouldn't be seeing them," said Darrel Muehling, professor and chair of the Marketing Department at the Washington State University College of Business and Economics. "Advertising that doesn't produce results simply doesn't last. But there is surprisingly little research on the subject of nostalgic advertising in the academic literature."

To Muehling and his colleague, WSU Marketing Professor David Sprott, the apparent success of nostalgic themes in advertising raises a number of intriguing questions about how and why it may influence consumer behavior.

In a recent study, the pair attempted to explore a number of assumptions about the trend, including whether advertisements are truly effective in prompting "nostalgic reflections" among consumers; whether such reflective thoughts are generally positive; and whether they prompt more favorable opinions of brands than ads lacking in nostalgic references.

The research, which gauged the reactions of 159 individuals to two nearly identical-appearing print advertisements, suggests that personal thought patterns are, indeed, inspired among those presented with an ad containing nostalgic cues. Further, the researchers found that those who experienced nostalgic thoughts tended to exhibit more favorable attitudes toward the advertised brand than those who did not.

But Muehling and Sprott said the research also raised issues that suggest consumers' nostalgic reactions can be more varied and complex than advertisers might expect.

"We used cues that tended to prompt a more personal, rather than historic, nostalgic reaction - a more 'warm and fuzzy' approach intended to elicit self-referenced responses," said Sprott. "Our results indicate that thoughts evoked by such nostalgic advertisements are not always positive. In particular, we found the use of nostalgic cues to generate significantly more personal thoughts - both positive and negative in nature - than did the non-nostalgic ad."

The finding corresponds with other research suggesting nostalgia is an inherently bittersweet emotion, he said.

"Consumers may strongly desire to return to their pasts, but be confronted with the realization that they can't," Sprott said. "While this negative aspect of consumer reaction to nostalgia doesn't appear to have a damaging effect on attitudinal responses to ads, it's clearly something that should be kept in mind by those designing promotional materials."

Perhaps a more encouraging aspect of the study from the standpoint of advertisers stems from the fact that the nostalgic ad used by the WSU researchers proved effective, even though the study was conducted among college undergraduates whose average age was only slightly over 21.

"This is significant, in that there are stages in life in which nostalgia becomes more important," said Muehling. "There's a generational effect. You simply have more life experience at 70 than you do at 20, so you logically assume that you will see an even more pronounced effect with nostalgia-based advertising when dealing with an older population."

Given that the first wave of the nation's 78 million baby boomers - possessing a spending power some have estimated as high as $2.5 trillion and growing - will soon beginning hitting 60 years of age, Sprott and Muehling believe nostalgia is likely to play an increasingly significant role in marketing in the future.

"Right now, the major television networks tell you that those between 18 and 49 years of age are the only ones who count," Muehling said. "But that's an assumption that needs to be revisited. Those in the 50-year-old-plus demographic are likely to be held in higher esteem in the future than they have been in the past."

As is often the case, Muehling and Sprott said their research raised a number of questions about the nature of the use of nostalgia in advertising that need to be pursued.

One issue they are planning to explore in the near future is whether ads that use nostalgic cues to prompt self-referenced memories tend to make product-related thoughts less accessible than ads that do not.

While there were indications in their study that respondents link nostalgic thoughts to brand name, Sprott said there were very few instances in which a direct link was actually established between personalized nostalgic thoughts and the specific product promoted in the advertisement.

"It may be that thoughts that are too personally involving become a distraction and tend to interfere with product-related thoughts," he said. "We didn't really find that in our study, but there were indications it's an issue that needs to be researched further."

There also are questions the researchers hope to address that relate to individual differences in responses to nostalgic cues.

"Some people appear to be more nostalgic than others," said Muehling. "It's a good assumption that there are important individual differences in how people respond to nostalgic cues. Understanding those differences and the factors that influence them may provide important insights into the effective use of nostalgia in advertising."

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