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AP Photo/ Vianney Le Caer
How nostalgic does this make you feel?

Nostalgia is the ultimate privilege

By Georgia Frances King & Paul Smalera

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This year, instead of newfangled gizmos and shiny whatchamacallits, the gifts that Santa brings might look a little … familiar.

Super Mario Odyssey, which has a vibe similar to the much-loved mid-’90s classic Super Mario 64, is expected to be the fastest selling video game of the season. Hot Wheels, the tiny-car franchise Mattel launched in 1968, is revving its engines, Hasbro is banking on a Nerf gun comeback, and Tamagotchi just re-released its needy digital pets to celebrate its 20th anniversary (and remind you what a neglectful parent you are).

Nostalgia holds an economic power. Brands and advertisers from Kodak to Coca-Cola act as its puppet masters, pulling at heartstrings and lulling us into making purchases through the promises of the past. Nostalgia encourages us to buy a piece of a memory—a moment in time when things seemed simpler and we thought we were happier. This is never more apparent than it is during the holiday season.

Wise words

“Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
—Don Draper, Mad Men

By the digits

8: Number of copies of Super Mario Odyssey sold per second in the first three days of its release, making it the fastest-selling Super Mariogame in the US, ever.

34: The number of TV spin-offs of old franchises in 2017, including new versions of DynastyTwin Peaks, and Heathers.

11%: The percentage lift Twin Peaks gave Showtime’s cable-network operating income in the second quarter of 2017, according to CEO David Nevins.

2: Number of new properties in the top 10 grossing movies for 2016. The others drew from films dating back to 1894, 1938, 1959, 1977, 1991, 1997, and 2003.

1994: Year that The Magic School Bus aired. Netflix relaunched the series this year with Kate McKinnon voicing the new protagonist, Fiona Felicity Frizzle.

11: The number of years between the first episode of Hey Arnold! and this year’s telemovie, Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie.

Like a fine wine

As behavioral economist Ben Ho explains, the value of some properties wither away and depreciate as they grow older, as others gain value with maturity. The term “appreciation” is used in finance to describe a financial asset that grows in value over time. While most physical assets depreciate, some, like classic cars or vintage wines, appreciate. It can be risky to bet on appreciation. The potential value a bottle of wine holds increases each year the bottle matures—but the chance that the bottle turns into vinegar increases each year, too.

But when a memory appreciates with time, marketers take advantage. It’s cheaper and easier to keep pumping out the same tired intellectual property year after year rather than coming up with a new, risky franchise that could flop; it’s safer to bet on a blue-chip stock that’s always done well instead of an unknown IPO.

(Candy) Crushing It

In video games, Nintendo has long profited from players wanting to revisit its 1990s heyday. The Pokémon and Zelda empires have both experienced recent renaissances, with the Pokémon Go app reaching three quarters of a billion downloads and a new Zelda game driving initial sales of their best-selling game console, the Switch. Nintendo also released a reboot of the classic NES console last year, which it couldn’t make fast enough to keep up with demand.

Department of jargon

In the late 1600s, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer noticed a pattern in his patients who were living far from home. Those who were obsessed with returning to their estranged locations became physically, sometimes fatally, sick. To reflect this phenomena, he coined the medical term “nostalgia” in 1688, which he created by combining the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and alga (pain).

If we could turn back time

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky argues that our preferences for music (and other media) is formed in our teenage years and early twenties, when our brain is most primed to explore new things. Spotify recently launched a time capsule playlist that features songs from when the listener was a teenager—it quickly became one of the streaming service’s most popular offerings. Music and movies that trigger memories of our carefree younger years put us in a good mood and increase the likelihood we’ll buy related products. Content creators know this and attempt to create value by triggering our happiest memories.

Fun fact

$3 billion worth of Star Wars toys were sold in 2011—a year no new installment in the franchise was released.

Take me down this 🐰hole

Philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term Hauntology in 1993 to describe nostalgia for an impossible future—a possible future that has since been overtaken by the events of reality. A sort of “what if” reverie, it is also a wordplay on the philosophical term ontology, or the study of the nature of being.
Hauntology is probably the first major trend in critical theory to have flourished online,” Andrew Gallix writes in the Guardian. “Today, hauntology inspires many fields of investigation, from the visual arts to philosophy through electronic music, politics, fiction and literary criticism. At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photographyabandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars.”

The trifecta of nostalgic influence

Feel like life is just one never-ending superhero film? Marvel and other franchises from the late 1970s to the early 1990s—such as Star WarsBlade Runner, and Jurassic Park—enjoy the perfect trifecta of economic forces:

  1. Something old: Franchises that are 20 to 40 years old appeal to the memories of those aged 35–55, the demographic for which earnings and spending power begin to peak.
  2. Something new: Franchises from that era are also just old enough for younger generations to view them as novel media properties, which circumvents depreciation.
  3. This ability to appeal to two different generations is amplified by our social connectedness.

Marvel fans who were teenagers during the comics’ heyday are at the peak of their spending power today; their nostalgia for their younger years helps drive ticket sales. But Marvel also takes advantage of some compounding interest: today’s teenagers who are experiencing the franchise afresh.

This is compounded by another component psychologists identify with nostalgia: its ability to induce feelings of social connectedness. The economic study of conformity concerns itself with how our consumption choices depend on our connections to other people. Memories acquire meaning not just in the connections made in our own mind, but in the connections of the collective consciousness.


“Say you not, ‘What is the cause that the former days were better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.”
—Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, Verse 10

The nostalgia trap

Nostalgia does something insidious to our present—it acts as a drain on our empathy towards those actually around us. Rather than live in the actual emotions and environs of the present, nostalgics manufacture a kind of trap for themselves—a sweet pain of longing for a circumstance that can never be, and never really was.

For those who complain that “nothing is new anymore,” we have no one to blame but ourselves. Firms supply the nostalgia that consumers demand, but there is a way to game the system: We can become more aware of how sellers manipulate our memories to peddle their wares.

Nostalgia is a form of privilege—the idea that there’s anything in our real or imagined pasts to return to means that we have been fortunate so far. So rather than look back, we should turn our gazes forward and create a present that we can one day remember as truly better than what came before.