Hocking Happy Memories: Feeding The Nostalgic Consumption Addiction

I spend a lot of time getting paid to study Consumer Culture.  I look at consumption behavior as a part of human culture spanning the globe.  There are developed markets and emerging markets, mainstream consumers and niches and there is one common variable that is absolutely certain: people don’t just buy products, they buy Brands.  Whether large scale or local or simply branded by default of the maker / producer, brands are really and simply IDEAS.  They are constructions of meaning based on communication, delivery of value towards meeting a need and how they relate to a consumer or culture’s set of values, norms, etc.

One very specific branding phenomenon I have seen pop up over and over again in the past ten years and even more so as times get tougher, is the phenomenon of the very distinctly American “nostalgia” brands.

It seems you can’t walk down a grocery aisle or through a mall without seeing brands or marketing that are selling the simply joy of a bygone era.  Perhaps it’s candy you ate when you were a kid.  Or maybe it’s a clothing or accessories that feature your favorite childhood cartoon?  Sometimes it’s just a package design that harkens back to an “old timey” decade or a kitschy rendition of a greeting card.  Other times its literal objects of imagery from another time:  like greeting cards that use someone’s old family snapshots with a silly tagline or collectible glassware you can buy on Ebay or the local “vintage” shop.

But the point of the discussion is this:  it kinda bugs me a little.  As someone who is often at the receiving end of constructive criticism  and  debate about American culture being driven by consumerism (which is true) it’s hard not to see the dysfunction in this consumption trend.  Whether or not you are buying into an idea of happy memories from your childhood or wistfully trying to connect with the nostalgia of an era you read about in your favorite novel / saw in a near-and-dear movie….it strikes me as a mood altering behavior.  It parallels other forms of addiction that help you escape through some sort of behavior: drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, food, etc.

I have seen friends while away hours and mountains of cash buying up toys on Ebay that they had (or wanted but never got) when they were kids.  I’ve seen people gain inches and pounds by eating mollifying their anxiety with cupcakes and sugary foods they got as rewards for childhood good behavior.
And lord knows I have seen my fair share of folks who shop for the thrill of the bargain and the instant gratification of accomplishment and acquisition.

But then the objective part of me says that people consume lots of different things for different reasons:  to fit in with a group, to make life easier, to express their personality, to be fashionable, to wake up, to go to sleep, to not worry so much and on and on and on.
So is it so bad if we consume to temporarily transport ourselves somewhere else or is this just the straw that is breaking the proverbial camel’s back?

Are we so focused on consumption and looking to the past via nostalgia that we are stunting our progress?  Perhaps if we spent less time conforting ourselves we might be better poised for solutions out of our complicated economic crises or social woes?

But I digress.  Who doesn’t enjoy a good walk down memory lane, even it was curated specifically to pull our heartstrings and empty our wallets?  I say if you can’t beat ’em join ’em…or at least make yourself feel better when you are done blogging with a handful of pop rocks.

What are some favorite nostalgic products you love?  Do you know a friend who can’t stop buying up old comics?  Share your thoughts and dysfunctions with your friendly blogging community or just your point of view.  Perhaps this narcissist is over-analyzing the problem.  Or maybe I am simply projecting (as she reaches for the Mac N Cheese and curls up with some Buggs Bunny Reruns)….


2 thoughts on “Hocking Happy Memories: Feeding The Nostalgic Consumption Addiction

  1. Actually I was in antique shops today, and I was surprised to see so many toys that I played with as a kid now considered antiques/collectibles. I did not feel compelled to buy any of the toys, but I was surprised by the emotion that I felt when I saw some of the old toys.

    A small green John Deere tractor that has pedals. I rode that at my cousin’s house.

    Also seeing items that resembled things from my grandfather’s basement was also a little emotional. So, I can easily understand why marketers target the “emotional” pocket book of people.

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