We’re hitting peak ’90s nostalgia at the Super Bowl

What year is it?
What year is it?
Image: Stella Artois
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Sarah Jessica Parker is back in her Manolos as Carrie Bradshaw; Jeff Bridges is cool as ever as the Dude; Sarah Michelle Gellar returns to her scream queen roots; and the Backstreet Boys are remixing “I Want It That Way” in three of this year’s Super Bowl commercials.

What year is it? 2019 or 1999?

Stella Artois, Olay, and Doritos are getting nostalgic for the late 1990s in their Super Bowl spots. Stella Artois tapped the Sex and the City and The Big Lebowski characters. Olay signed Gellar for a horror-themed ad. And Doritos is the one dancing with the Backstreet Boys. The ads lean into a broader fondness for 1990s pop culture and fashion that seems to have struck the nation.

Super Bowl commercials, while designed to sell stuff, are also a strong reflection of the cultural zeitgeist and economy at a particular point in time. The ad agencies that create the ads pour hours of manpower into consumer and market research to inform the creative, which will be seen and critiqued by more than 100 million people at once, and, at $5 million for a 30-second spot, is advertising’s single biggest investment.

“The Super Bowl is so different than most marketing these days,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. Today, a lot of marketing on the internet and in social media is targeted to people most likely to respond to it. The Super Bowl isn’t that precise. It’s for the masses. Advertisers look for themes, characters, and celebrities that will resonate with Americans widely.

Characters like Carrie Bradshaw and ”the Dude” that left lasting marks on multiple generations, namely Gen Xers and millennials, are a good fit. They’re also back in the cultural conversation this year as their respective shows and movies hit milestone anniversaries. The same is true with the Backstreet Boys, who marked the 20th anniversary of their formation in 2018 and reunited for a new album and tour this year. Gellar is also back in the public eye due to the recent 20th anniversary of the TV show that made her a star, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its planned revival.

Why nostalgia for the 1990s, as opposed to the ’70s or ’80s, which also hold a special place in the memories of many Americans?

“Nostalgia always seems to hit 20 years later,” said Mark DiMassimo, chief of ad agency DiMassimo Goldstein. “I think the people who create the work look back at their formative cultural influences.”

Leading creatives, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s now, would likely have fond memories of these characters and celebrities, as would NFL viewers of similar ages. It’s driving some of the 1990s nostalgia we’re seeing in this year’s slate of ads. Before we know it, advertisers will be yearnings for the early 2000s.

“This Super Bowl, we’re going to party like it’s 1999,” said DiMassimo.