HASHTAG #THROWBACK: SELLING THE PAST TO THE PRESENT
Netflix teleports viewers to the past for a win
By Sang Kromah
Human beings are emotional creatures, prone to occasional bouts of sentimentalism. Or are those bouts occasional at all?
People are on a constant quest for happiness. Whether through experiences or tangible goods, it’s safe to say, consumers suffer from the “anywhere but here” syndrome, habitually trying to recapture a time where they believe life was simpler or better. In many instances, people build up anticipation for future events and once the future is present, they’re left disappointed, yearning for the comfort and safety of yesterday.
For example, with the ever-growing promotional hashtags used on Instagram, #TBT (ThrowBackThursday) and #throwback are two popular hashtags, garnering well over 38,000,000 individual results at any given moment. They allow users to reminisce about their youth, past trends, old friends, and the best days of their lives. Some users also take advantage of these hashtags by adding them to unrelated content in an attempt to ride the wave of popularity, but rarely does that work, leaving other users disappointed about being misled.
The ability to align marketing strategies with emotional links has proven successful time and time again. A study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research found this strategy to be effective as subjects of this study became more willing to spend money when nostalgic feelings were involved.
But nostalgia marketing can be tricky. If done properly, it can revive precious memories and be profitable. If done incorrectly, it could come across as being contrived, turning potential customers away.
Think about your favorite holiday or Super Bowl commercials. The best ones are always about going back home for the holidays or have pleasant attachments to childhood. Remember the popular 1979 “Mean Joe Green” Coca-Cola commercial? Well, marketers did, and revisited the commercial with a remake of the 30-second Coke Zero spot for the 2009 Super Bowl, establishing that viewers remembered as well, making it one of the most well-received commercials of the year.
Good products/content often tap into familiar whispers of days gone by, while incorporating something new as opposed to the cold uncertainty of the future. There’s nothing wrong with the hope of tomorrow, but often times, people equate that uncertainty with fear, which coincides with anxiety. Anxiety is the last thing marketers or companies want to be associated with their products, which is why the past is often revisited with positive results.
Freeform’s Black-ish spin-off, Grown-ish uses a similar formula, taking many cues from the hit 90s HBCU sitcom, A Different World. Zoey, Grown-ish‘s main character, leaves childish things and Black-ish behind to embark on her own adventure at college, much like Denise Huxtable left The Cosby Show behind (for a while) to attend the fictional HBCU, Hillman. And like A Different World, we watch as students navigate through relevant and critical issues while giving us something to laugh about. Although Grown-ish is great, it didn’t make me want to study hard to attend that university, which is what happened when I watched A Different World. Needless to say, I was distraught to learn that Hillman wasn’t real, but it was the reason I spent two years at Morgan State. Go Bears!
Streaming powerhouse, Netflix has used this idea of nostalgia marketing and is winning with the revival of Full House, Gilmore Girls, the remake of The Worst Witch, and its modern take on Anne of Green Gables, Anne with an E. But their most brazen and successful endeavor by far is taking a chance by utilizing this strategy to create something new and foreign that still feels familiar with the creation of Stranger Things. Of course, the company isn’t the first network to create a series set in a different time period to tug at emotional strings. That ‘70s Show and The Goldbergs have done a pretty good job, but the execution of Stranger Things is what sets it apart from its predecessors and rivals.
When most people remember highlights of ‘80s entertainment, four main components come to mind: the music, a sci-fi aspect, style (i.e. fashion, hair), and the actors of actresses used. From the classic song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash to ‘80s/’90s “it girl,” Winona Ryder, Stranger Things does more than simply attach nostalgic components to a period drama. These components are significant plot points that take you back to a time, where most had huge hair, were screaming “Goonies Never Say Die” and wanting to be like one of Winona Ryder’s iconic onscreen personas like Lydia (Beetlejuice), Roxy Carmichael (Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael), my favorite Charlotte Flax (Mermaids), or even Kim (Edward Scissorhands). It’s the authenticity that makes Stranger Things work so well. Nothing is simply thrown in for the sake of nostalgia or shock value.
It should be noted that sole reliance on nostalgia does not equal success. Nostalgia seems to work best when there’s familiarity without trying to alter or replicate what’s been done before. In the case of Stranger Things, the viewer feels like they’ve been transported to 1983, but they don’t know what to expect, because this story hasn’t been done before. Outside of a few familiar faces, the simplicity of old-school small town America, and a soundtrack that brings back memories from the eighth-grade formal, this is new territory to all, so it doesn’t feel cheap or misleading.
A perfect example of sole reliance on nostalgia can be seen in That ‘80s Show, the failed spin-off of the aforementioned, That ‘70s Show. The novelty of the period comedy had worn off on the network, because the series had nothing more than a time period to rely on, leaving an audience disappointed and sick of a network’s failed attempt at trying to duplicate something that already worked so well with no added value.
In the case of Stranger Things, maybe it’s the Steven Spielberg-esque feel that lingered heavily throughout the ‘80s or simply great writing, but watching it feels like going home, marching up to your childhood bedroom to find that everything is still the same with the addition of a finely wrapped present, lying in wait on your window seat. That’s good marketing: arriving at the intersection of nostalgia and authenticity.