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ANALYSIS BY

Robbie Taylor

Cognition and Memory

Victoria University of Wellington

Wellington, New Zealand

 
Robbie Taylor

Profile
I'm completing my PhD in Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington. I'm interested in memories—particularly applying research to the criminal justice system.

 
Joined On:
May 18, 2017
Last Active:
June 12, 2017
 

Product Name

Holidays Are Coming

Company

Coca-Cola

PsY Rating

The analyst's overall summary, as applicable, of the accuracy of the psychology and the subject's potential to be psychologically influential or manipulative.

A higher rating means the psychology is more accurate and positive.

05/25/2017

The Use of Nostalgia in Advertising

Every year, Coca-Cola releases their “Holidays are coming” Christmas television commercial. Although this commercial is widely anticipated, what we see each year is not surprising—a truck covered in lights with a picture of Santa holding a bottle of Coca-Cola, lighting up a cold, frosty, town. The reason why this image is not surprising is because this commercial has remained relatively unchanged for over 20 years. How can a company get away with a lack of innovation for over 20 years? Surely, the company has enough talented people working for them who could craft a new commercial? But, perhaps, Coca-Cola hasn’t changed this commercial over the years for a good reason.

What reason would Coca-Cola have to keep the same commercial? Maybe they actually can’t think of a better idea, or they think older commercials are somehow better than new commercials. That idea makes sense because we know that many people think that products made in the distant past are superior to today’s products. I’m sure you’ve heard someone—perhaps an older person—complain that “they don’t make them like they used too.” Maybe that’s Coca-Cola’s attitude. But were things objectively better in the past than they are now? If we consider the speed of technological advances, we would conclude that things today are made to a higher quality than they were 20 years ago. But we don’t often hear these types of complaints when older people talk about airplanes, medicines, or computers. It’s possible that some things were objectively better in the past. But in this analysis, I’ll explore another possibility: Maybe people think things were better when they were younger because they feel nostalgic about their past. Furthermore, perhaps companies, like Coca-Cola, use this feeling of nostalgia to influence our buying behavior. 

What is nostalgia?

First, though, what is nostalgia? Simply put, nostalgia is the sentimental longing for the past. If you have ever visited the old house you grew up in, you have probably experienced a nostalgic feeling. Specifically, you may have been flooded with positive memories—perhaps playing around in your backyard, walking home from school, and eating at your old dinner table. But when these memories come flooding in, you immediately realize three things. First, how easy it was to be a child. You could play after school and all weekend, and you didn’t have to worry about paying bills, going to work, or dealing with any tricky relationships. Second, you realize how much you miss being a child. There seems to be a glowing positive haze over anything that happened in childhood—even negative events, like falling from a tree are viewed as positive. And the final, and most striking, realization is that you will never be able to go back to this lovely carefree lifestyle again. That is, you may not even know where some of the people in your childhood memories are now, you can’t justify taking the day off work to play in the sandpit, and you don’t even know if you would enjoy playing anymore.

Was life actually better when you were younger?

But to what extent is this feeling that the past was better than the present an illusion? We know from research that people tend to remember positive events better than negative events. Also, the emotions associated with negative memories seem to fade faster than the emotions associated with positive memories. One reason for these differences is that we tend to distance ourselves from our failures and hold on to our successes. This, what you might call, “selective remembering” is important for our mental wellbeing. Often, people with depression constantly re-experience failures and other negative events, and these people are not biased to remembering positive memories. But just because most people are more likely to remember the positive events from their past doesn’t mean the past was actually better. Of course, when you were eight years old and fell from a tree, you probably weren’t happy—and you certainly wouldn’t have thought you would look back on this memory with fondness. So perhaps the past wasn’t better than the present, and instead nostalgia is a product of the way we remember.

Another reason why we might think the past was better than the future is because we are not good at recognizing the changes we go through as we get older. Think about why so many older people believe that there is widespread moral decline in society. For example, often older people lament that the world is becoming an increasingly unsafe place, after hearing about a tragic event, like a violent attack. It’s also common for these people to think the crime rates are skyrocketing. But often statistics don’t back up these views. For example, we know that violent crime in the US has decreased since the 1990s. Researchers believe that this disparity between perceived crime rates and actual crime rates is because people confuse changes in world with changes in themselves. That is, as we get older, we will watch the news, talk about politics, and have a better understanding of world issues than we did when we were younger. Because of these internal changes, we are more likely to be aware of the events, such as crimes, that happen around the world, and therefore remember them. So, perhaps the world isn’t becoming an increasingly unsafe place. But instead, as people get older, they become increasingly aware of how much of an unsafe place the world is.

The benefits of nostalgia

If the past wasn’t actually better than the present, why do we often think it was? Perhaps there are benefits to feeling nostalgic. Researchers have identified at least two things that nostalgia might do. The first thing is nostalgia puts us into a positive mood. Despite the fact that we often experience a sense of loss when we’re nostalgic, the feeling is primarily positive. The second thing nostalgia might do is strengthen social bonds. We know that memories about our lives are often recalled to maintain friendships and relationships. For example, when you see that high school friend you haven’t seen in 10 years, you might reminisce about how you were given detention together, or about how mean your old math teacher was. This reminiscing brings you and your friend together—you share a common past. So perhaps we experience nostalgia, not because it helps us accurately judge the past, but instead because it brings us happiness and strengthens our relationships.

How do companies take advantage of our nostalgia?

Although there are benefits to nostalgia, there are also downsides. Let us return to the Coca-Cola example. It’s clear that the Coca-Cola company seeks to induce their customers with nostalgia. We probably drank Coca-Cola when we were younger, so we immediately have a fondness for this product. On top of that, when we see this Christmas commercial, we get an extra injection of nostalgia. Furthermore, we might feel even more nostalgic when we see that the old glass bottles from early 1900s are now being used again. With all of these nostalgic cues, some of our childhood memories will come flooding back to us. Of course, with these memories flooding back, we probably feel happy. We might also talk to the people about these memories.

But just because we feel nostalgic, doesn’t mean we will be more likely to buy Coca-Cola, right? It’s hard to say definitively, but research shows that people consider money and social bonds as exchangeable. More specifically, one study found that after making people feel nostalgic, they were willing to pay more for a product than people who were not made to feel nostalgic. These nostalgic participants also thought money was less important; they had less desire for money and even gave more money away to other people. This could be the simple reason why Coca-Cola has kept the same Christmas commercial for over 20 years. Not only does Coca-Cola save money on advertising, but it might induce people to buy their product more often—or at least make people pay more for their product.

Should you feel outraged that Coca-Cola might be using nostalgia to influence your buying behavior? Maybe. But how can you put a price on something that reminds you of your childhood? After all, people value old photos, souvenirs, and other reminders of their past. And we spend a lot of time and money to obtain and keep these reminders of our past. So why should we feel outraged when Coca-Cola delivers a reminder of some happy childhood memories? Our memories are valuable because they define who we are. We should value those things that remind us of the past—even if these reminders also serve one of the world’s biggest companies. 

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