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Super Bowl Ad Nostalgia May Point the Way to Restoring Trust

Our yearning for pop culture of decades past is based on a desire to connect.

Key points

  • Nostalgia is used for marketing, but more importantly, it is also used to connect.
  • The economy depends on trust and relationships. Nostalgia reminds us of shared experiences that help strengthen both.
  • Nostalgia is especially effective at combatting loneliness at a time when people feel disconnected and unmoored.
Inga Seliverstova/Pexels
Nostalgia is a way to restore cultural connection.
Source: Inga Seliverstova/Pexels

Another Super Bowl came and went, a show many commentators noted for its nostalgia, from the halftime show's homage to 90's era hip-hop to commercials calling back to celebrities and TV shows from decades past. Nostalgia at the Super Bowl of course, is nothing new. The literature in marketing and the economics of nostalgia have long noted that music and media that reminds consumers of the halcyon days of their teenage years are especially good at selling them consumer goods like beer and cola. The ads and celebrities on display at the Super Bowl seem perfectly targeted to the thirty- and forty-somethings who are at the peak of their buying power, showing them the music, e.g. Snoop Dogg, and the movies, e.g. Jurassic Park, that remind them of their youth.

Two things are new about this current wave of nostalgia though. The first is we live in particularly unsettling times, when trust has continued a decades long decline, and pandemic and economic uncertainties have unmoored all of our lives. The second is that nostalgia seems to have hit Gen Z particularly early, with 10 to 25-year-olds flocking to shows like Friends and Golden Girls which were popular before they were born. Understanding the function of nostalgia within my area of research, on the economics of trust, can help explain these developments.

The economics of nostalgia is about the economics of trust

Economists are interested in trust because every economic transaction involves taking a risk on another party, in other words an act of trust. In my book, Why Trust Matters: An Economist’s Guide to the Ties that Bind Us, I explore the history of trust from pre-modern times to its role in the modern economy sharping everything from the money we use to new tech platforms like blockchain and the sharing economy.

I am interested in nostalgia because stories tell us who we are and help us connect to one another. The nostalgia we see in the television stories that people are consuming today in the wake of the pandemic tell us about both how corporations take advantage of nostalgia to sell things, but also about how we use nostalgia to connect to other people.

During the pandemic, young people turned to shows like The Office, Friends and Golden Girls. How do we explain this obsession for shows that were popular, often before they were even born, and often seem heavily out of step with our time?

If you look at the top grossing movies each year, you find an increase in sequels and movies that call back to earlier properties during economic recessions and other turbulent times. Our memories are bound together by their associations, we tend to imprint on the music of our teen years, because they remind us of simpler times, especially when they are remembered through rose-colored glasses.

My interest in nostalgia comes from its role in strengthening relationships and building trust. In past research, my co-authors and I examined how we use the consumption cues of others (sometimes unconsciously) to make judgments about them and whether they can be trusted. Those who share the same nostalgic consumption proclivities (music playlists, movie references, even just memories of pivotal events) likely share our values. Evolution has primed us to associate like-minded individuals as people we can trust.

A past collaborator of mine, Xinyue Zhou, and her colleagues have conducted a series of experiments showing that nostalgia counteracts loneliness and increases feelings of social belonging. So it makes perfect sense that older generations turn to nostalgia during times of economic and social dysfunction and distress.

For Gen Z, nostalgia helps overcome a fragmented culture

Gen Z nostalgia, however, is a bit perplexing because nostalgia normally works by triggering pop culture memories from your teenage years. But for Gen Z, many of whom are still teenagers themselves, they are often seeking pop culture from before they were born.

In part, this could be because they are going through unprecedentedly chaotic times, they are looking to the past for solace, much like Happy Days (a show from the '70s set in the '50s) did once upon a time. Or it could be due to the fact that pop culture has become so splintered today. Trends change so quickly at the frenetic pace of social media. Streaming services offer unlimited choice. It is now harder for younger generations to find unifying cultural touchstones to connect upon. So they turn to an earlier time when there was less choice (e.g. just three TV networks), when there was more of a monoculture, and water-cooler "Must See TV" like Friends or Golden Girls served as a shared cultural experience that helped bring people together.

In a time of loneliness and fragmentation, many of us, young and old are turning to simpler times when common cultural touchstones helped bring people together. There are lessons to be learned in our shared yearning for cultural connection that could offer insights for ameliorating our increasingly polarized times. At a time when culture and politics seem more polarized than ever, it is nice to find examples of shared points of connection that can help connect us rather than pull us apart.

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