Nostalgia is a funny thing. I laughed at Gen Xers when their childhood was repurposed into kitschy gimmicks targeted at young, trendy millennials who were eating nostalgia up on an ongoing basis. But now, as we’re moving further into 90s nostalgia, my own teen years are slowly becoming a marketing tactic and product line for Generation Z.
I, too, am feeling generational creep.
They say you know you’re old when your favorite songs are put on adult contemporary compilations, or when you hear them over the air at discount stores. However, when you see kids on YouTube commenting on how they’re hearing them for the first time because they were featured in a TV show, it somehow seems different—more like a stab in the memory bank. Nostalgia has always been one of those things that hearken back to childhood and the good times you had—but it has a different effect when what you think of as nostalgia is fodder for rubbing it in that you are aging.
As the 90s come roaring into focus for brands that are looking to create a new experience for Generation Z, there’s enough evidence to put nostalgia in context. Both 80s and 90s nostalgia are rooted in new and seemingly bittersweet experiences. The rise and fall of incredible musicians, new technologies to which we had to adapt, movies that defined a generation . . . every generation has this. In all reality, nostalgia repeats itself; it just changes decades.
The bigger picture, then, isn’t that nostalgia is happening—the bigger picture is that nostalgia without context can be a mixed bag. I thought the wave of 80s nostalgia was a fun, whimsical fly-through of a decade’s aesthetic, without putting any of it in a frame of reference. Now that nostalgia is centering around my teen years, I can’t help but look at it with a different perspective. Do these kids know how impactful this song was? Do they know why we wore that? Do they have any idea what it felt like? Nope. It’s just entertainment and design to them.
Nostalgia has become a launch pad for brands, a mechanism to create a new experience for the current “it” generation, and to rekindle emotions of those that lived through it already. In the right hands, it’s a tactile marketing weapon; however, without context, it is simply a mess.
The 90s continues to rise as an aesthetic, be it through entertainment such as Netflix’s new series Everything Sucks or Nickelodeons reboot of Rocko’s Modern Life, the return of patch and pin-embellished military coats, and the resurgence of Doc Martens—or even the revival of the Nokia banana phone. These are great and all—if used in the right way. As nostalgia itself creeps closer into the lives of those who lived it—who also are the key demographic for the product itself—let’s just be sure to keep context in the equation.
Those memories, after all, are mine.