Is There Too Much Nostalgia in Movies & TV Shows Today?

Star Wars. Ghostbusters. Jurassic Park. Footloose. Robocop. Blade Runner. Tron. Marvel. DC. Disney live-action everything. It feels as though every movie that has come out in the past 10 years has been either a remake, a sequel, a prequel, or a superhero movie. Hollywood production companies have “milked every franchise known to man” and now audiences everywhere are drowning in that schmaltzy heavy cream. (Ewens) Production executives have been becoming increasingly risk-averse, so remakes guarantee a built-in audience and a guaranteed financial windfall, regardless of whether the movie is watchable or not. (Desta) Hollywood executives know that nostalgia is possibly the most effective marketing tool, more effective than sex, big explosions, or even Tom Cruise. It is not just the film industry banking on nostalgia either. The television, music, radio, and video game industries have been heavily laying their money on consumer’s sentimental yearning for a time past. Grammy-Award winning artists like Adele and the late Amy Winehouse were influenced heavily by jazz greats like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. (Leight; Adele) Satellite radio has allowed stations like Sirius XM to further segment radio stations from simply “the Oldies station” to decade-themed stations, such as the “50s on 5” or the “60s on 6.” (Decades) The vast majority of television’s most popular and critically acclaimed shows of the past 15 years have been period shows, such as PBS’s Downton Abbey, AMC’s Mad Men, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and Netflix’s Stranger Things. (Paste) From the silver screen to the smartphone screen, nostalgia is inescapable in today’s media. 

The “nostalgia pendulum” as pop-culture Patrick Metzger coins it, swings about every 30 years. (Metzger) For this reason, we are currently emerging from an era of 1980s nostalgia into an era of 1990s nostalgia. Stranger Things, which debuted in 2016 on Netflix, is a prime example of the 2010’s obsession with 1980s pop culture. (Whitten) By the time Season 3 was released in 2019, nearly 40.7 million global households had watched it in the first four days. (Whitten) Considering there are only 150 million subscribers on the platform, that means that about a quarter of Netflix’s audience watched the season during its premiere that Fourth of July weekend. (Whitten) 

Stranger Things is a science fiction show that takes place in the 1980s, and shamelessly draws from late 1970s and 1980s hit films, such as Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, ET, The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Goonies, and Stand by Me. (Metzger) Stranger Things is a masterpiece of 1980s nostalgia, from its synthy techno theme to its countless pop culture references, including Dungeons & Dragons, New Coke, and Toto’s “Africa.” (Metzger; Shardlow) Even the series logo was meticulously designed to mimic the era. The logo is written in bright red neon Benguait font, an immensely popular serif typeface in the 1980s used for Stephen King paperbacks, Choose Your Own Adventure novels, old Smith albums, and more. (Brownlee) Stranger Things is no accident, but a carefully patched together creation to deliver a potent work of 1980s nostalgia. Considering the show’s massive success, Netflix has shown no signs of deviating from its nostalgic formula, considering how well it is working. When Fuller House, the reboot of the iconic Full House (1987-1995), was first released in 2016, 14.4 million people between the ages of 18 and 49 had viewed it within the first 35 days, a higher viewership than Sunday Night football or The Walking Dead. (Schneider)

In the music industry, nostalgia is also used in varying degrees of blatancy. At times, nostalgia can simply be a strong influence from the past, occasionally bordering on plagiarism. In 2011, when “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga was released, it was criticized for sounding almost exactly like the 1989 single “Express Yourself” by Madonna. (Schillaci) The songs were so similar in fact, that in 2012 Madonna performed a mashup of the two songs during a performance in Auckland, New Zealand, much to Miss Gaga’s dismay. (Schillaci) In 2020, Lady Gaga seemingly copied from another popular throwback song, borrowing the hook from Kylie Minogue’s 2001 “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” for “911,” a song on her newly released Chromatica album. (LeFevre) Other musicians are more indirect in their nostalgic approach. Pop artist Harry Styles relied heavily on 1970s rock influences for his past two solo albums, drawing from artists like Jodi Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, and Paul McCartney. (Acha) His most recent album, Fine Line, clearly demonstrates these 70s influences, from the Fleetwood Mac style acoustic guitar riffs on his break-up song “Cherry” to the grandeur trumpets on the album’s titular track that scream Earth, Wind, & Fire. (Acha) 

One may argue that these musicians are simply pulling influence from their favorite artists and that nostalgia is an inadvertent result of that influence. However, there are several reasons that an artist may use nostalgia, one of the reasons being as a tool to differentiate. Harry Styles grew to popularity as the front runner of the British boy band One Direction that formed about ten years ago. (Sheffield) Since the band amicably went separate ways in 2016, Harry has been desperate to rebrand himself and shake the squeaky clean pop star image. Now everything from his flamboyant and outlandish dress, to his countless tattoos, to his new 1970s inspired music screams old school English rock star. (Sheffield) Furthermore, drawing from 1970s influences specifically appeals to Baby Boomer and older Gen X music critics who tend to dominate the music journalizing industry. (Sommer) Receiving critical acclaim from established publications like Rolling Stone and Variety is a foolproof way for an artist like Harry Styles to depart from the bubble-gum image of a sold-out pop star. (Sheffield; Willman)

However, that is not to say that marketers should not take advantage of generational specific musical nostalgia. A New York Times study found that the most important period for forming musical taste is between the ages of 11 and 14. (Ong) On average, men were about 14 when their favorite song was released, for women, it was about 13. (Ong) One can see this phenomenon is particularly apparent in regards to band reunion tours. A Backstreet Boys concert will likely be overrun with 30-year-old women, just as an ACDC concert will likely be overrun with 50-year-old men. While some people are anomalies or might have some eclectic taste in music in their teens, this general rule of thumb is very useful in appealing to generations as a whole. This past December, I saw the band All Time Low on their Nothing Personal Tenth Anniversary Tour, which promoted the release of their album, It’s Still Nothing Personal: A Ten Year Tribute. (Campbell) The album consisted of re-recordings of tracks from their original 2009 Nothing Personal record. (Campbell) When I started going to their concerts over a decade ago, I was mostly surrounded by other teenagers. Now as a 20-something, I was surrounded by other 20-somethings. While the emo pop-punk demographic grew up, our music taste stayed almost the same.

Nostalgia marketing has bled into the gaming world as well. Cyberpunk 2077 is a video game released by EA in Decemeber 2020.  (Lee) Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that typically focuses on anti-heroes trapped in a dystopian “high-tech, low-life” future. (Cyberpunk) While the cyberpunk genre has been reimagined countless times, since the release of the cult classic film Blade Runner, the genre has been largely stuck in the 1980s. (Walker-Emig) Cyberpunk 2077 ‘s trailer features a run-down neon city, gritty techno music, and flashy sports cars that heavily resemble 1980s supercars like the Lamborghini Countach. (Cyberpunk 2077; Lee)

Thus far, we have discussed several illustrations of nostalgia across various mediums. As marketers, is there a way to use nostalgia to specifically appeal to certain generation segments? Generational pandering can be evident in the aforementioned reunion tours, film remakes, and television series reboots. However, due to the phenomenon of “fauxstalgia,” or nostalgia for a time one has never experienced, marketers can simultaneously appeal to younger and older generations. (Wolff) While Stranger Things takes place in the 1980s, it is far more popular among the Millennials and Gen Zers than it is with Baby Boomers or Gen Xers who actually remember the 1980s. (Watson) While 48% of viewers under 30 have seen at least one episode of Stranger Things, only 37% of viewers over 45 have. (Watson) Such a phenomenon is beneficial to marketers because it allows them to capture a larger audience than they could without the use of nostalgia. Baby Boomers may generally dismiss superhero movies as silly or childish, but when the film features a favorite superhero from childhood like Batman or Spiderman, they might garner interest in seeing the film, due to a desire to relive their past. (Antczak) Entertainment is unlike other products that tend to be carefully segmented, like fashion or cars, in that they tend to try to reach the widest audience possible. Multigenerational nostalgia marketing is a brilliant way for the entertainment industry to reach the widest audience as humanly possible, thereby also a brilliant way for the industry to make as much money as humanly possible.

Nevertheless, what if the marketer’s goal is not to reach the largest demographic conceivable, but rather to single out a specific age group for a particular product? Marketers can take advantage of generational nostalgia to not only market entertainment and its merchandise, but also to market unrelated products. Ozempic, a diabetes medication, uses a parody of Pilot’s 1974 hit, “Magic,” to market the medication, in which the line “oh it’s magic” is replaced with the brand name Ozempic. (Ozempic; Bell) While the song is used partially because the line sounds so similar to the name of the medication, it is also used because it is a popular song from the target market’s youth. Adults between the ages of 45 to 64 are the most diagnosed age for diabetes. (Cherney) A 60-year-old today was about 14 years old when the song was released, the ideal age when musical tastes are formed. (Ong) Seniors may have fond memories associated with the classic song, and then transfer that fondness to the pharmaceutical brand. 

In conclusion, has the media become completely oversaturated with nostalgia marketing?  The answer is a matter of opinion. Some fear that current cultural obsession with nostalgia is killing originality, creativity, and risk-taking in the entertainment industry. (Al-Heeti) However, the industry will only cease to release an endless stream of reboots, remakes, and remixes if and when we decide that we are not going to pay for them anymore. (Al-Heeti) While critics and audiences alike may have lamented the thought of a Lion King remake, 10 million people to see the film anyway, partly out of the desire to see the cherished characters made new again. (Wiles; Al-Heeti) The film raked in nearly $1 Billion just two weeks after its release, surpassing the original animated film. (Al-Heeti) Even when a remake is considered to be a box office flop, the merchandise, cross-branding, and product placement is enough to allow the production company to turn a significant profit. (Al-Heeti) The resurgence of nostalgia across culture and the media is undoubtedly driven by money, but that money is driven by consumer demand. After 20 years of the show’s creators dismissing screams for a Friends reboot, HBO Max is finally airing a Friends reunion special, set to begin filming at the end of the summer. (Low) As much as I bemoan the fact they are destroying my beloved Friends, I will be anxiously counting down the minutes until the release, much to my own dismay, just see “The One Where They All Get Together Again.”

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