How do you sell things in times of uncertainty and crisis? One way is to appeal to consumers’ sense of nostalgia, and the sense of a golden past when everything was more certain, safe, warm and good. This 2009 article from the New York Times explored the phenomenon:
As the recession continues taking its toll, marketers are trying to tap into fond memories to help sell what few products shoppers are still buying. The time-machine tactics are primarily evoking four decades — the 1950s through the 1980s. For instance, on April 20 a beverage unit of PepsiCo will begin an eight-week campaign for “throwback” versions of two soft drinks, Pepsi-Cola and Mountain Dew. The packages and formulas, along with advertising and promotions, will evoke the ’60s and ’70s. The hope is that warm, fuzzy feelings about the past will help make people feel better about the present and future. “It’s about yearning for the past, a simpler time, even though the ’60s and ’70s were not simple,” said Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer for sparkling beverages at the Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages unit of PepsiCo. “They just seem simple, looking back,” he added.
A great (if not very believable) example of this sort of nostalgia advertizing is the new British Airways advert. Airplane companies are in a real bind at the moment – they’re being crippled by high fuel prices, their profit margins are under attack from budget airlines, and people no longer feel so good about flying. Spoilt consumers that we are, we no longer feel it’s a wonderful luxury to fly, something you dress up for, like going to the opera. Instead it’s a hassle: you have to go through long security checks at over-crowded airports, then squeeze into crammed airplanes run by surly staff, then sit next to an Arab with a ticking turban for eight hours…and all the while you’re guiltily aware that it’s terrible for the environment.
So what do airlines do? They appeal to a better past, back when it was considered glamorous or even noble to fly. Virgin Airlines, for example, looked back to the 1980s or to the Bond movie pastiche of the 1960s, while British Airways recently got even more grandiose, and tried to make a connection between the heroic first test pilots of the early 20th century and their own spoilt, strike-prone staff.
It’s a ridiculous advert by BA really – the heroic, moustachioed aviator chap ‘leaving wives and children in their snug homes with just a kiss and a promise to come home’ (except we see the wife and child waiting dutifully by the runway). BA gropes for an aura of moral mission, fumblingly attempts to give the viewer and consumer a warm sense of moral uplift, but what they really do (and this is true of pretty much every advert on TV) is coarsen our sense of the moral and meaningful. Those moral buttons have been pushed so many times by every clumsy marketeer that we have become numb, and have stopped believing in any moral message.
I can’t stand adverts that make out their companies have some over-arching Big Society-esque moral mission that connects the entire country in one big family. So many ads try to do this at the moment – the product as national ideology, connecting friends, families, neighbourhoods. You know the kind of ad – people spilling out from their homes and marching euphorically down the street in great outpourings of civic togetherness…except it’s all for a product…like paint-stripper or something. And when did you last see your neighbours spilling out into the street to celebrate paint-stripper?
Like this new Halifax advert, which shows the bank’s staff singing along together like they’re in some goddam Methodist choir. Seriously, companies, stop pretending to be social enterprises. By the way, Halifax, the slogan ‘The bank that likes to give back’ kind of sticks in the throat when taxpayers gave you and our other high street banks £850bn in bail-out money. How about you give that back?
Just to show I’m not completely curmudgeonly (although I am), I prefer these two Virgin Atlantic ads – they don’t try and get in a pulpit and preach to us, but instead appeal to our sense of fun and sex. Those parts of our brain never seem to get numbed, however often companies push them.