The Pandora’s Box of Nostalgia

It’s become a rite of passage to see your entire childhood neatly repackaged to you in a 90-second ad.

I’m a millennial born bulls-eye between 1981 and 2000, and to me the over saturation of nostalgia I’ve recently noticed didn’t actually start with ads. In its nascence, Buzzfeed’s output was defined by “10 things you’ll remember if you’re a child of the 90s” listicles. Goodies like Lisa Frank stationery, Art Attack and E-Z Bake Ovens were brought back to us before we even knew we missed them. This opened the Pandora’s box of millennial-targeted nostalgia.

There’s one ad that caught my eye early on with its especially intriguing use of nostalgia, which feels very much built on what Buzzfeed was doing at the time. In 2013, Internet Explorer released an ad called “Child of the 90s,” which has since pulled 47 million views.

“You might not remember us,” it starts. “But we met in the 90s.” The next 90 seconds are a narrated montage of Tamagotchis, yoyos and light up sneakers. It ends with the tagline “You grew up. So did we,” and pans to a tablet computer showing the sleek interface of the new Internet Explorer, which is the first time we are shown the product. But we don’t actually see it, because we’re too busy wiping away tears triggered by Pogs triumphantly flying across the screen in slow motion.

To many of us, Internet explorer was the vehicle of our first online experiences. Clicking the grainy blue gradient of the ringed “e” icon was the threshold to the wormhole, to forums, geocities, myspace and Yahoo chat rooms. By 2013, Firefox, Safari and Chrome had long since replaced Internet Explorer. So when this ad came out, it was like hearing from an old friend.

From Backstreet Boys reunion tours to #ThrowbackThursday to Pokemon Go, it feels like this age group is more saturated in nostalgia than ever before. So what is the science that explains why triggering the past is so effective?

Memories are a pliant material. In 2011, Psychology Today wrote “Memory researchers have known for a long time now that memory is about re-imagining events more than it is about recording them, and that skillfully applying the right suggestions can induce people to ‘remember’ all sorts of childhood events that never happened to them.” Just as Wahn deftly wrote in a previous post,when it comes to memories, the mind is not a filing cabinet but a “receiving and transmitting device.”

In a 2002 study, participants were given what appeared to be an ad that recounted the warm childhood experiences of going to Disneyland. Of being tall enough to ride Space Mountain, getting “It’s a Small World After All” lodged in your head and spotting Bugs Bunny in the crowd.

After reading the ad, participants were asked to record their own memories of visiting Disneyland and roughly one fifth of them indeed recalled meeting Bugs. And there’s the rub! Bugs Bunny would never be at Disneyland longer than it takes security to identify and remove the Warner Brothers character. But it shows how false memories impact consumer choices and the power of nostalgia in how products can be positioned within it.

As for the Internet Explorer ad, a case study by the California-based content marketing agency Column Five who produced it recognizes “No brand had truly capitalized on ’90’s nostalgia yet. Who better to do it than Internet Explorer?” The intent here was to reframe the browser’s relationship with Generation Y. And after 47 million views, 7 million in the first week, we gobbled up that narrative. Of course, what the ad doesn’t show is that Internet Explorer was also the conduit to 12-year-olds in sex chat rooms and Cyberbullying before it even had its name. But again, we’re too busy swooning over Hungry Hungry Hippos to consider it.

As for me? I still use Google Chrome.

Elli Stuhler is a London-based copywriter. After establishing the Toronto bureau for Winkreative and Monocle, she moved on to London where she works with place branding specialists dn&co. She has written for the Globe and Mail, re:porter and On the UP and currently edits the St James’s Correspondent. Her favourite ‘90’s TV show was Sailor Moon.