The Age of Hard and Soft: Technology, Nostalgia and Brand “Paradessence”

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Still from Microsoft’s ‘Child of the 90s’

The soft sentimental atmospheres of Nostalgia have long been part of brands’ marketing solution to consumer anxieties around change. But how will Nostalgia play in the increasingly complicated mix of the tangible and the online?

You may have had your fill of the rose-tinted, of heritage and reminiscence, but it’s not going away any time soon. In an age where the impact of Globalization deepens, many seek a return to traditional certainties in politics, while brands from finance to technology often introduce highly developed new products with large ladles of nostalgia. In his novel The Savage Girl, Author Alex Shakar, coined the word ‘paradessence’ to describe the fact that brands and products have a paradoxical essence – they create two opposing desires for the consumer, paradoxical desires that the product promises to resolve.

Technology And Seeking ‘Simplicity’

We could class the practice of selling the future (product innovation and new technology) through the visual idioms of the past as an example of ‘paradessence’. It was a dynamic described by thinker Walter Benjamin at the beginning of the 20th Century (a must-read for anyone interested in the notion of Authenticity and why it works in advertising) where he noted that continuing technological change means people will react by seeking simplicity (see also “Teaching old brands new tricks: Retro Branding and the Revival of Brand Meaning by Stephen Brown, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry Jr. ” in the Journal of Marketing).

Lemonade Stalls

What does this mean visually? Well in the case of HSBC, paradessence (selling the paradox that is increasing felt emotionally between a brand pitching itself as both Global and Local) it means the mythic Lemonade stalls of our childhood have shifted from concerns around getting enough cash for the latest Super Mario, to anxieties around international currency.

and concerns over global supply chains.

But it’s social networking that has deepened the impact of Nostalgia (Johannes Hofer originally coined the word in 1688 to mean a kind of homesickness or melancholy) to where Nostalgia has been magnified from the personal to the shared, from private, bittersweet sorrow to collective reminiscence.

Social Deepens Nostalgia

It’s why when Microsoft pitched its ‘Child of the 90s’ ad last year around Internet Explorer (the Slate magazine headline called it “the Definitive 1990s Nostalgia Video”) it was such a phenomenon among Millenials/Digital Natives, even though as commentators remarked, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being nostalgic about Internet Explorer.

New technology, such as social media, transforms Nostalgia into a slightly different shape. In a feature on The Drum, Angela Haggerty interviewed Buzzfeed’s Creative Director Philip Byrne, “Nostalgia is a huge driver,” he says. “As everyone knows, there are dozens and dozens of nostalgia pages on Facebook – I remember the 90s or I remember the 80s. Nostalgia is like giving people a sort of perspective on their own past through sharing; things that reflect the person you are and the person you want to be seen to be by your friends. It’s part of the story you’re telling about yourself through your social presence.”

The Aesthetic of the Ordinary

And finally (thanks to my students for this extraordinary example in their extraordinary presentation on Nostalgia) Dell mine the well of nostalgia in telling the story of technology start-ups, of the objects and spaces and rooms of Nostalgia. It’s a reminder that while we sometimes think of Nostalgia as a kind of mental clutter of the present by the past, it’s aesthetic is actually stripped-back, profoundly ordinary, it’s impact all the more intense because of the gap between the ordinariness of the object and longing we have for it. While Nostalgia has been intensified by the technology of social media, it’s unique capacity to leave us swooning is because it interrupts our present with the past in a very real way, calling to heart and mind  the uncanny and unfathomable  relationships we have with places, people and things.

See the Nostalgia visual essay here

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