Why is Nostalgia so powerful today?

 In Insights
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Why is Nostalgia so powerful today?

Recently, the mass regurgitation of cult and pop culture movies has been hard to ignore – from super hero movies, Ghost Busters, Alien, Trainspotting 2, the new Star Wars films to the new Blade Runner remake – these are just a few examples that originated in the last century. As well as Netflix and Amazon remaking old classics into highly addictive TV-series, even the latest box office hit ‘La La Land’ is a hark back to the Hollywood glory days of the 1950s. These are just a glimpse of a long list of reboots that are hitting our screens.

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But is there something bigger going on here?

In the latest season of South Park we saw the world taken over by nostalgia crazed berries, Member Berries, who tirelessly reminisce about pop culture classics. Like a drug, once the berries are consumed, you also enter a mind-numbing state engrossed in nostalgia.

The berries are prescribed to the people of South Park to ‘take the edge off’ current events as a way of escapism. Sadly, the side effects of distraction and docility lead the berries to world domination and subsequently cause the future of South Park to fall to ruin.

Although the story line has a typically polarising and crass humour approach, the core sentiment has marked parallels to the culture of today.

While Member Berries aren’t real, they do a brilliant job of highlighting a current global issue of an over indulgence and focus on the past whilst blindly stumbling into an uncertain future.

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Take a look around; video game classics like Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, Pokemon are being remastered; shabby industrial chic styles are filling every bar and coffee shop; washed up musicians making reappearances and ‘come back tours’; mid-century furnishings fill every living room; men’s fashion is led by a supposed time when men had big beards, brewed their own beer and chopped wood with an axe – AKA the hipster. Day time TV is rolling out remakes of the classics – Open all hours, Birds of a feather, Blankety Blank (to name but a few).

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In design we’re seeing huge trends in vintage, retro and Victoriana styles (Penhaligon’s ad campaign being one example of many), even leading some big brands – NatWest & Co-op amongst others – to position their roots firmly in the past.

Not to mention the Brexit dream of a strong independent United Kingdom that harks back to the days of empire and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign’s rhetoric of bringing back the (long dead) American Dream.

“Things were better then”; “back in the day”; “I remember when…”; “Let’s make America great again” are things we are hearing all too often. The dream of a golden age that came before, whether true or not, is now crucial to how we see the world today.

This powerful global trend of looking to the past has dug deep into every aspect of our lives. However, it’s merely a by-product of a much bigger trend at play. The growth of which, we’re all using the past to distract us from. Fear.

The millennium saw the start of a cascading series of events that have resulted in austerity, terrorism, right wing nationalism as well as climate change. With a manipulative media, endless abuse scandals, wealth inequality, sidelined welfare systems and fear of immigration on top of our high stress lifestyles – the life people have come to know and love is under threat. These are part of a long list of intertwined influences driving the growth of fear.

With an unknown future, full of fear and uncertainty we turn to nostalgia. We look to the past for comfort, reliability and familiarity. Indulging ourselves by watching classics, reboots and surrounding ourselves with past styles and memorabilia to recreate the comfort and stability we had in that past. Turning to nostalgia is a great way of distracting us from the fear of the real events taking place around us – nostalgia has never rung so strong.

So what does this mean to us as designers?

In reaction to this fear we’ve seen the creation of two types of people. Firstly, the ‘Global Citizen’, who positively believes in an open interconnected world that should work and build stability together – who’s fed by an emergence of purposeful brands catering for the newly formed audience. Brands that build bridges between people and culture, that help people understand their changing relationship with the world around them – companies that show to put people, with their vastly diversifying needs and desires first, before profits. This is known as Societal marketing. Some examples include; Divine Chocolate, The Body Shop & Toms.

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Secondly, the ‘Nation Nurturer’ whose conservative attitudes and provenance led tendencies are being fed by ‘local first’ products and campaigns that believe in putting a particular place or ideal first. They look to their own roots to build stability, looking inwardly with a cautious view on outsiders – thereby feeding the fear they’re trying to avoid.

These two polarizing attitudes culminate in conflict and are consequently integral to the fear we’re all trying to escape from.

Sometimes we just have to let trends run their course. History has shown that eventually people will turn and face their fears. Resulting in an explosion of revolution and unrest with marches, art, debate and rebellion against cultural norms that cause cataclysmic social change – propelling society into an exciting new direction.

It’s a cycle history has seen time and time again. One example being the Renaissance in the 1500s, where the city states of Italy dug up their ancient roots and rediscovered the wealth of knowledge and insight their ancestors had enjoyed – culminating in the age of enlightenment.

Change is good. It catalyses new ways of thinking and new ways of speaking out – creating new ideas, innovation and problem solving. With this comes art movements, social transformation and cultural shifts (usually for the good) – making now an exciting time for artists and designers as we discover new styles, art forms, communication techniques and technology that emerge out of the chaos.

Ultimately, we have to do what we can to be inspired by the past and not stuck within it; addressing the fear and the problems we face with creativity, responsibility, ethics and sustainability – and hope to create certainty in a world racked by fractious and seemingly irreconcilable differences and find a way to bring them together for a better future for everyone.

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