Certain senses, and certain media, can put you in the past. A rerun of “Tom and Jerry” takes me back to 5 years old, sitting on my long-gone fabric couch, eating a peanut butter sandwich with my dad before afternoon kindergarten. This bittersweet feeling of nostalgia can be incited by the simplest of senses and can make you smile about a past memory while also longing for those good times. But scientists have explored the feeling and determined that nostalgia is an overall positive experience — not holding you in the past but rather lifting your spirits. Nostalgia provides a sense of continuity in your life and personality, which is something that can bring people peace with themselves. And because of this emotional pull of nostalgia, it’s no surprise that marketing officials and personal brands have been increasingly pulling on these feelings in exchange for profits.
One of the most prominent examples of this is the new wave of Disney live-action remakes, beginning with “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010, which was later joined by “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella” and “Christopher Robin.” The films did quite well overall in the box office, with “Beauty and the Beast” hitting a record-breaking $170 million in its opening weekend. These films, based on Disney cartoons, pull the attention of those who grew up watching the originals, a media-favorite from the childhood of both millennials and Gen Z. Due to their unprecedented success, Disney plans on producing at least five more live-action versions through 2020.
The use of nostalgia is not limited to media conglomerates like Disney. This marketing tool has been extended into the world of personal brands and online influencers. On social media accounts with large followings, “influencers” can be making well into six figures, and this is often dependent on viewership. Josh Peck, an actor best known for his role as Josh Nichols on the popular Nickelodeon show “Drake & Josh,” has moved his career in the direction of social media, becoming active on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Peck has also created a close association with fellow influencer David Dobrik, who recently reunited Peck with his “Drake & Josh” costar Miranda Cosgrove. The resulting video got over 9.6 million views, is nearly double the average views for Dobrik’s content.
The use of nostalgia in an attempt to generate viewership and excite audiences has its place, but if taken too far can feel disingenuous. Disney, one of the six most influential media conglomerates in the United States, is consistently producing original content, however, a large portion of their current work stays based in these recreations. While the reboots are well done, it’s difficult not to see the trend of remakes increasing alongside box office sales. They know that nostalgia sells tickets. The authenticity of a reunion between childhood stars who have not seen each other for years can be questioned in the same way. But nostalgia gets clicks.
As a sentimental person, I enjoy these nostalgic media moments, and more often than not, they do draw me to certain content. The enjoyment of nostalgia is a natural response, which is why it remains an effective tactic despite its prominence in our media. And the content certainly can be artistic, thought out and strong. Not all nostalgic media is bad content, but it’s important that as consumers we acknowledge nostalgia’s new role as a marketing strategy in popular culture. At what point does nostalgic media stop being a worthwhile extension of the original content and instead begin to stifle authenticity?
Each use of nostalgia can be examined with these criteria, and it’s up to the consumer to determine the worthiness of these projects and whether or not they stand as strong pieces of content, outside the realm of the original. We have all seen a bad sequel or remake — the cult classic “Scream” did get three sequels — and those are the types of projects that simply try to profit off of the extension of a successful original. Media content is a blend of art and entertainment, but its greatest purpose has become making money. We live in an attention economy where the media is constantly vying for our viewership, and it’s no surprise that nostalgia has become so central in doing this. We need to become more active in our media decisions. Consumers should be more aware of their choices and understand the intentions of brands before they passively accept the recycled content coming across their screens — separating exciting nostalgia from lazy recreation.
Erin White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.