Nostalgia Marketing: The Business of Selling the Past

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By Ira Brooker

When Joni Mitchell wrote "I feel to be a cog in something turning," she didn't know the half of it. That line from 1970's "Woodstock" originally referred to the widespread hope that the namesake festival would be a catalyst for peaceful revolution. 40-odd years later, Mitchell's song is still a vital cog, but now it's helping to turn the unstoppable machine of nostalgia marketing.

There's been a steady rumble in the past few decades about the noxious narcissism of the Baby Boomer generation, much of it grounded in the kind of self-congratulatory sentiments found in Mitchell's song. The standard knock against Boomers is that they're obsessed with lionizing themselves as the generation that changed everything -- music, sex, war, morality -- and that they've spent the past 40 years wallowing in the cultural relics of their youth. There's probably some grain of truth in that characterization, but it doesn't give nearly enough credit to the media and marketers who engineered the selling of a generation.

It's been a massively successful campaign. Repackaging '60s and '70s counterculture is as good a renewable resource as a marketing firm could hope for - I have a friend who's bought The Who's Live at Leeds eight times in various incarnations, for instance - and has even proven adaptable to new markets. When the nation turned its eyes away from the hair metal and excess of the Reagan '80s, the marketing folks zeroed in on the '90s generation's social consciousness and swiftly repackaged the '60s as something to venerate and aspire to. Neil Young was now The Godfather of Grunge. Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison were precious martyrs. The Woodstock logo looked keen on t-shirts. Boomer parents were happy to have a bond with their kids, and everybody bought merch happily ever after.

That flurry has died down a bit these days, but it's a persistent strain of nostalgia marketing. Every morning my local public radio station features a brief retrospective on a pop cultural milestone, everything from the 40th anniversary of Ray Stevens' "The Streak" to the 50th anniversary of every milestone of The Beatles' eventful 1964. A recent issue of People featured a cover story on the 45th anniversary of the Manson murders. And of course there's CNN's multi-part documentary The '60s. All of that makes sense, as the audiences for those outlets skew toward Boomerhood, but it's still an irritating manifestation of the phenomenon.

The merchandisers and marketers would love to make this a self-perpetuating cycle. That's why '90s nostalgia is currently blitzing all across the internet. The kids caught up in the first crush of online entertainment now have kids of their own, and that's an ouroboros with buying power. The commemorations are coming hot and heavy: a two-decade remembrance of Kurt Cobain's death, high-profile features on the 25th anniversaries of Seinfeld and Twin Peaks, 20th anniversary reissues of Nas's Illmatic, Soundgarden's Superunknown and Jeff Buckley's Grace, among others. And of course every one of these milestones has inspired dozens of blog entries and thinkpieces.


But there's hope for the '90s generation and those that follow. One major factor in the initial Boomer nostalgia boom was availability. A lot of the material that generation grew up with was, for a time, difficult to come by. As vinyl gave way to cassette tapes and CDs, record collections got packed away and broken turntables were tossed to the curb. TV shows fell out of the syndication loop. Movies went out of print, if they were ever released on video at all. Even if the art you loved was technically available, you often had to live near a well-stocked music shop or video rental place in order to find it.

So when the 25th and 30th anniversary editions of '60s and '70s properties started rolling out, many Boomers were understandably eager to get their hands on long-lost art that had defined their youths. (I remember a friend of my dad's being thrilled by our cassette of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's So Far because he hadn't heard some of the songs in 10-plus years.) Of course the media companies were more than happy to provide them with an endless variety of high-priced commemorative editions and remasters.

Things have changed, obviously. Thanks to the internet, the list of lost movies and impossible-to-find albums is dwindling daily. Sure, there are still plenty of rare items out there, but it's unlikely that '90s nostalgia buffs will have to dedicate their weekends to scrounging yard sales and thrift stores as did previous generations. As "available for the first time in decades" becomes less of a factor, marketers will need to lean more heavily on perks like bonus tracks, outtakes and commentaries as a means of selling our past back to us. That'll work on the hardcore folks, but the average fan will read a few thinkpieces, say "Huh, I can't believe it's been 25 years since Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted" and then maybe watch an episode or two on Netflix.

I could well be wrong, but it seems unlikely that Gen X or Gen Y nostalgia will become as obnoxious as Boomer nostalgia is often judged to be. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in the internet era not much gets a chance to go absent. The omnipresence of everything should help stave off the sepia tones, and might even encourage aging arts fans to keep exploring new work and avoid getting stuck in a generational rut.

Still, I've always found something about '60s nostalgia marketing sort of comforting. If nothing else, it helped push some worthy material in the public eye. I first got into Woodstock as a teen back in '94 when my dad brought home a VHS dub of MTV's 25th anniversary presentation of the exceptional concert documentary. It was one of those movies that changed my life, and I think many of my peers were similarly well-served by the Woodstock revival. I'd even say a lot of us have nostalgia for our parents' nostalgia.


Compare that to the near absence of media buzz surrounding the 20th anniversary of the marketing behemoth that was Woodstock '94. You just can't force fond memories.