Why Are So Many Super Bowl Advertisers Playing the Nostalgia Card?

There's money in missing the past—even if the past really wasn't so good

Coca-Cola's millennial flower children are reminiscent of the youths in the 1971 spot.
Coca-Cola

At first look, “The Wonder of Us,” Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl LII ad filled with frolicking friends from many nations, looks like a standard nod to diversity—the sort of inclusive message, some might argue, that’s sorely needed at a time when Americans are more divided politically than any time in a generation. An October 2017 study from Pew Research Center found deep divisions of opinion on a number of hot-button issues, including race and immigration.

So the message from Coca-Cola—“The world is filled with over 7 billion unique yous who are all special in their own ways,” said the caption on YouTube, “ … there’s a Coke for every single one of us”—comes off as a reassuring reminder that we really all can get along, so long as we pop open an ice-cold …

Wait a minute. We’ve seen this before. Or, at least, we older viewers have. In 1971, McCann Erickson spent a then-astonishing $250,000 to produce “Hilltop,” an ad showing young people from scores of different countries gathered on a hill in Manziana, Italy, singing “I’d like the buy the world a Coke.” The spot was so popular that the song eventually charted at No. 7 with Billboard and, two years ago, Coke aired a remastered version of the original 35mm film.

The link between this year’s ad and its antecedent 47 years ago is not overt, but the relationship—the obvious nod to racial and gender diversity, the long-haired hippy-dippy styling—is hard to miss, as is the implicit lesson: Nostalgia, that feel-good crowd pleaser of a marketing theme, sells.

And this year, Coke is hardly alone.

Also making nostalgia plays in the Big Game are Pepsi (with the return of Cindy Crawford and other stars from commercials past); Kia (with 1970s rocker Steven Tyler traveling back in time) and even a continent—Australia, with its ambitious remounting of the 1986 film Crocodile Dundee. (Here’s the inside story on that strategy.)

According to Aaron Harvey, founding partner and executive creative director for agency Ready Set Rocket, there are no shortage of reasons why brand marketers would want to go back in time, this year or any year.

“Nostalgia creates a story where the brand can be the hero,” he said. A spot that harkens back years or decades demonstrates “the idea of trust,” while simultaneously showcasing a brand’s longevity. If you can show that a brand “has always been a part of the culture,” Harvey said, “it shows how it’s still relevant.” Nostalgia, finally, is also “an interesting way to do compacted storytelling,” and that’s especially useful in the Super Bowl, where every second counts because each one costs a small fortune.

Cultural relevancy was presumably the goal for Pepsi, whose Super Bowl spot this year will kick off a yearlong “Pepsi Generations” campaign, which itself will be a “celebration of the brand’s rich history in pop culture for 120 years,” according to the press materials. Pepsi’s spot doesn’t quite reach that far back, but it does tout “the Pepsi that your father drank and his father drank” by revising great moments from Pepsi commercials past—notably, guest stars like Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.

Questions of relevancy notwithstanding, Pepsi’s decision to retreat into the safety of the past might also have something to do with the backlash that resulted from its last major effort at getting contemporary.

In April of last year, it released a spot showing 21-year-old reality TV star Kendall Jenner bringing peace and harmony to a protest march—this at a time of widespread Black Lives Matter protests—simply by giving away icy cans of soda. The spot famously prompted Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter Bernice King to tweet: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Corporate apologized and withdrew.

Meanwhile, nostalgia seems to be sprinkling a different kind of pixie dust over Kia, whose spot “Feel Something Again” manages the remarkable feat of taking an auto brand that’s only been in the U.S. since 1994 and bringing it all the way back to 1973.

The spot stars Steven Tyler, the inimitable frontman for the classic-rock-era band Aerosmith, who steps into a 2018 Kia Stinger paused at the starting line of a racetrack. Rather than race the car, however, Tyler pops the clutch in reverse, turning the sports car into a time machine: As he gets out, the 69-year-old Tyler is 25—the age he was in 1973 when the arena anthem “Dream On”—which, appropriately enough, plays backwards in the audio track—was first released.

According to research by Jumpstart Automotive Media, this spot began to move the needle for Kia shortly after its release a few days before the game. (In the entry-level luxury segment, in which Kia is newcomer, the Stinger already ranks ninth.) Libby Murad-Patel, Jumpstart’s vp of strategic insights and analytics, believes that, for an automaker like Kia, nostalgia is both a shrewd and safe card to play because of the pleasant emotional response consumers tend to have when they watch them.

“What we have found in the past is that ads that appeal to the emotions are the ones that are watched more frequently shared more, and they stay in the minds of consumers,” Murad-Patel said. “It’s a safe route to go with the game and they still have fun with it.”

Jill Meenaghan, CMO of Jumpstart’s parent Hearst Autos, added that while “that whole nostalgia thing is being tapped into in this ad,” it’s important to note that this is the kind of nostalgia “that will appeal [not only] to boomers and Gen Xers, but also to a generation that wasn’t alive when Aerosmith was in its heyday.”

Meenaghan added that this spot, punctuated by a startling young-Tyler lookalike and a gaggle of bellbottom-wearing groupies, represents a kind of “fetishizing of a time when there was a carefreeness.”

Indeed, that might be the core of nostalgia’s potency. A walk down memory lane tends to avoid the unpleasant stuff and favor the sweet and simple things that everyone misses. In point of fact, Tyler wrote “Dream On” well before Aerosmith made it big, and his rock-and-roll youth would be plagued by a vicious heroin addition that, one suspects, he is anything but nostalgic about.

Which raises another point. As a marketing tactic, nostalgia is also not without its risks for brands, Ready Set Rocket’s Harvey said. With its message of diversity and inclusiveness, for example, Coca-Cola is holding itself and its product up as a kind of moral paragon in these divisive times. But as Harvey pointed out, consumers are more skeptical and far better educated than they were in generations past, which means that corporate itself had better stand up to scrutiny.

“Can Coke authentically own their position of connecting people and inclusivity? It can seem a little disingenuous,” he said. “I think of Coke taking advantage of people in third-world countries. Is that really bringing people together, or are you selling an unhealthy product to people who don’t know better?”

Of course, one could argue that most advertising is at least partly about selling stuff to people who don’t know better. But given the cost of a Super Bowl ad, differentiation is the order of the night—and if that happens through pulling the old heartstrings, well, you can’t fault brands for trying.