The Nostalgia Boom

Why the old is new again

To viewers watching the ad for the new Volkswagen Beetle, it is like squinting into the past. A vague image begins as a small circle set against a stark white background. As the picture sharpens, the circle becomes a flower--with seven daffodil-yellow New Beetles as its petals. The cute-as-a-Bug cars drive away, and a zippy black Beetle careens into view and skids to a stop. The tag line: "Less flower. More power."

Welcome back to the '60s--except this time, the revolution will be televised by Madison Avenue. Volkswagen's Flower Power commercial is only the first in a barrage of ads about to hit the airwaves as the German auto maker launches a new and improved version of the venerable Beetle to America after a 20-year absence. Volkswagen's strategy is simple: It plans to sell its back-to-the-future car by wrapping it in the symbols of the not-too-distant past.

Volkswagen is not the only marketer mining the warm associations of boomer youth and the Age of Aquarius to sell consumer goods. These days, nostalgia marketing is everywhere, from almost forgotten brands such as Burma Shave to jingles that borrow from classic rock. Pepsi uses the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar, while James Brown's I Feel Good helps sell Senokot Laxatives. Hollywood is awash with remakes of movies and TV shows plucked from an earlier era. Even retired slogans and mascots are being resurrected. Maxwell House has dusted off "Good to the last drop," while Charlie the Tuna is swimming his way through Starkist tuna ads once again.

Consumers can't seem to get enough of these airbrushed memories. Middle-aged boomers obsessed with their youth and movin' down the highway toward retirement clamor for retro roadsters such as the Porsche Boxster. Walt Disney Co. developed an entire town, Celebration, Fla., on the notion that Americans are pining for the look and feel of 1940s neighborhoods. Baseball fans step back in time by piling into Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Oriole Park at Camden Yards--new ballparks designed to look like they've been around since the turn of the century. Meanwhile, kids have reclaimed mom and dad's bell bottoms and platform shoes and brought back Diane Von Furstenberg's wrap dress.

No one, though, has as much riding on the nostalgia wave as Volkswagen. Its U.S. market share having withered to less than 1%, VW is wagering $560 million that its spunky little car can revive its fortunes. It's a very calculated bet. The new, postmodern Beetle has been reinvented with a message that slyly assuages end-of-the-millennium angst with a harkening back to the Summer of Love. The new version, which is about to hit the showrooms, comes with all the modern features car buyers demand, such as four air bags and power outlets for cell phones. But that's not why VW expects folks to buy it. With a familiar bubble shape that still makes people smile as it skitters by, the new Beetle offers a pull that is purely emotional. "If you sold your soul in the '80s," tweaks one ad, "here's your chance to buy it back."

STRESS RELIEF? Why the intense yearning to turn back the clock? The faster we hurdle toward the millennium, it seems, the more we're reaching desperately backwards toward the halcyon days of mid-century, days of postwar prosperity and quaint notions of revolution that nowadays seem astonishing in their innocence and idealism. In their place have come growing anxiety about aging and a fear of hanging on in today's increasingly stressful society.

Americans are overwhelmed, social experts say, by the breathtaking onrush of the Information Age, with its high-speed modems, cell phones, and pagers. While we hail the benefits of the wired '90s, at the same time we are buffeted by the rapid pace of change. "We are creating a new culture, and we don't know what's going to happen," explains futurist Watts Wacker, co-author of The 500-Year Delta. "So we need some warm fuzzies from our past."

Just take a stroll through the supermarket. Shelves are now brimming with packaged goods that look as if they're from another era. After Coca-Cola Co. recreated a plastic version of its famous contour bottle in 1994, sales grew by double digits in some markets, says Frank P. Bifulco, vice-president for marketing of Coca-Cola USA. Necco wafers are enjoying a comeback--sales are up 25% in the past two years--thanks in part to a packaging redesign that harkens back to its roots. "There has been a flurry of clients coming to us and saying, `We want that handcrafted look,"' says Jack Vogler, partner at SBG Enterprise, a San Francisco packaging-design house that recently restored the old packaging of the Sun-Maid raisin girl and Cracker Jack's Sailor Jack and Bingo.

Even old ads are being recycled to woo wistful customers. Sales of Maxwell House have perked up since it began including archival footage of percolating coffee pots in its ads. It's a startling departure from the modern image Maxwell House projected in the early 1990s as hip upstarts such as Starbucks Corp. became all the rage. "Consumers are not in a real experimental time now," says Richard S. Helstein, vice-president for advertising at Kraft Foods Inc. "They are looking for brands they can depend on--brands they grew up with."

Successes such as these have advertisers jumping on the bandwagon--even when they don't have archives to pillage. In February, Ford Motor Co. began airing a commercial commemorating how Henry Ford put America on wheels. The spot includes what appears to be grainy, historic footage of a Model T puttering down a long-ago Main Street. But the sepia-toned scene was actually shot last year on a Hollywood back lot and was given a vintage look by using a 1920s hand-cranked camera, old emulsion film, and special editing.

Why recreate history? Ford is hoping that consumers will equate longevity with quality. "People really respond to it. They say, `This is a company that has lasted through a couple of world wars,"' says Bruce Rooke, executive creative director at Ford's agency, J. Walter Thompson Co.

Indeed, social experts say much of the appeal of nostalgia stems from a longing for a return to simpler times. Despite a robust economy, Americans remain an anxiety-ridden bunch. Not all the riches of a long bull market can make up for the rigors of overbooked working parents forced to reduce family life to an exercise in time management. Divorce rates remain high, job security is down, and saving enough to send the kids to college or for retirement can seem overwhelming. Is it any wonder that a new survey from Roper Starch Worldwide shows that 55% of Americans believe the "good old days" were better than today? That's an about-face from attitudes of a generation ago, when 54% of those surveyed in 1974 told Roper they believed there was no time better than the present.

GOLDEN MEMORIES. Naturally, baby boomers, ever powerful in their numbers, are driving this return to roots. The Roper survey identifies the most longed-for age as the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. "The '50s and '60s were a time of very high expectations for baby boomers," says J. Walker Smith, a partner with the Yankelovich Partners consumer-research firm. "But life didn't turn out to be the 1964 World's Fair."

In fact, life went on, and aging is yet another force at the root of nostalgia marketing. The oldest of the boomers are in their 50s and are resisting the aging process with the vigor they once reserved for protesting the war. While they snap up vitamins, diet pills, and other tonics touted to stop the clock, marketers are counting on the appeal of nostalgic products to salve the wounds of growing old. If nothing else, familiar products and jingles give boomers the chance to act and feel young. "Boomers are saying, `Maybe my parents were old at 50, but I'm not,"' says Rick Adler, president of Senior Network Inc., a marketing consultant firm.

That's certainly a big reason why Dennis J. Berger, 52, waited six months to take delivery of his white $65,000 Porsche Boxster, a retro roadster styled like the 1950s vintage Porsche favored by movie stars like James Dean. "It opened up a memory of when I was a teenager in New Jersey," says Berger, vice-president of Allied Plastics Co. in Jacksonville, Fla. "This car reminds me of the '50s, when there wasn't a care in the world."

Yet the nostalgia phenomenon is not simply about America reliving a Golden Age. It is also about reinterpreting it. We may look back through rose-colored glasses, but few want to live in the past for the sake of authenticity. The new retro ethos has a thoroughly modern cast. Log Cabin syrup brought back an old-timey label but sports a convenient squeeze-top bottle. When Coke redid its famous hourglass bottle, it made it in today's popular big-gulp sizes. And movie remakes come complete with the latest in special effects. "Americans want that Victorian house with the wraparound porch, but it had better be wired for all the latest technology," says Carolyn E. Setlow, senior vice-president at Roper.

Such reinterpretations are particularly popular among younger, Generation-X consumers. While they've adopted many products and fashions from the 1960s and 1970s as their own, they often update them with an ironic twist. And it has little to do with longing for an era they never experienced. "I see it more as rediscovering than retro," says 20-year-old Matthew Levy of New York City. "I don't want to be my father. I want to rediscover things he forgot about when he was out climbing the corporate ladder." Case in point: cigars. Both he and his dad smoke them. But Levy says his generation has reinvented the product to suit its lifestyle. "Where my dad smoked cigars, they didn't allow women. No one my age would go for that."

The vintage-style stadiums that have risen across the country embody this marriage of past and present. Camden Yards and Jacobs Field look like ballparks from a bygone era. Coming to New York might be a recreation of the old Brooklyn Dodgers' home turf, Ebbets Field. But this time, it would house the New York Mets. On the inside, these faux-historic stadiums are ringed with the luxury suites that make corporate customers comfortable and owners rich. Even regular fans are rewarded with wider seats and broad concourses dotted with more concession stands and restrooms than real old ballparks ever had. "People will go to see a place once because it's historic," says HOK Sport Senior Vice-President Joseph E. Spear, the architect of Camden Yards and Jacobs Field. "But they don't come back unless they have a good time."

POWER SUNROOF. The Beetle comeback is also based on a combination of romance and reason--wrapping up modern conveniences in an old-style package. Built into the dashboard is a bud vase perfect for a daisy plucked straight from the 1960s. But right next to it is a high-tech multi-speaker stereo--and options like power windows, cruise control, and a power sunroof make it a very different car than the rattly old Bug. So, too, does the sticker price: While a new Bug cost just $1,800 in 1968--$8,300 in today's dollars--a typically equipped new Beetle will run about $16,500.

But if the Beetle, like us, has grown up, Volkswagen is hoping it will still spark the same emotions as its younger self. With its simple design and no-frills engineering, the original Beetle was the antithesis of Detroit's gas-guzzlers. As boomers by the tens of thousands bought their first cars, it blossomed into an unlikely icon. By 1968, its peak year, VW sold 423,000 Beetles in the U.S. Cheap to own, easy to fix, and giddy fun to drive, the Beetle personified an era of rebellion against conventions. Says John Wright, a pop-culture expert at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.: "When people look at Volkswagen, it looks like youth."

But youth fades, and by the late 1970s, the Bug had faded, too. VW was never the same after it dropped the Beetle from production for the U.S. in 1978. By 1993, says Jens Neumann, a member of Volkswagen's board of managers, with less than 1% of U.S. auto sales, "we were just about to drop out of this market."

MYSTERY MARKET. Instead, VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech decided to make an almost quixotic bid to recapture its former glory. In 1993, he ordered up a prototype of a new Beetle in what was essentially a last-ditch effort to jump-start sales. The concept car was launched at the 1994 auto show in Detroit--and promptly stole the show as car shoppers and reporters mobbed the VW display. Crowds packed in several people deep just to get a look at the yellow Bug. The wildly enthusiastic reaction from the public astounded even VW execs. "We were, to say the least, overwhelmed," says Piech.

Still, VW is walking softly into the market. It plans to build just 100,000 Beetles a year at its plant in Puebla, Mexico, with half of those targeted for the U.S. and Canada. Company execs refuse to be pinned down on the Beetle's target market, saying only that it is designed for "optimists." Yet it's clearly aiming wide. While many of its ads sport jokes targeted at the previous Beetle generation, others are aimed squarely at Gen-X.

Early signs are that VW could have a cross-generational hit on its hands. Dealers across the country have been inundated with inquiries on the new Bug, and many now have long waiting lists. Jeff La Plant, sales manager for Volkswagen of Santa Monica, says he has already gotten orders from 100 customers. "It's like you have a rock star here and everybody wants an autograph," La Plant says. "I've never seen a car that had such a wide range of interest, from 16-year-olds to 65-year-olds."

Greg Stern, a 47-year-old film producer in Santa Monica, is No.1 on La Plant's list. Describing the car as--what else--"way cool," he's in line for a silver or white model. "In 1967, my Dad got me a VW. I loved it. I'm sure the new one will take me back," says Stern. "I'm getting the New Beetle as a surprise for my daughter, but I'm sure I'm going to be stealing it from her all the time."

Like Volkswagen, others have discovered that a history of warm memories is an exploitable asset these days. The Nickelodeon cable channel's Nick at Nite proved such a hit recycling sitcoms that it spawned TV Land and a host of other imitators. That's true even if the product itself has been gone for decades. Burma Shave is banking almost entirely on its nostalgic appeal as it returns to store shelves after a 30-year absence. The shaving cream's legendary rhyming roadside signs, last seen in 1964, will return this summer. And they may even begin showing up in the supermarkets and Wal-Marts where Burma Shave is now sold, says brand manager Steve Cochran. "Those signs evoke a lot of nostalgia about driving along the highway on vacation," he says.

At least Burma Shave's history is real. As nostalgia becomes ever more important as a marketing tool, companies are increasingly willing to fake it. Four years ago, Gap Inc. launched the Old Navy casual clothing chain with a series of old-timey black-and-white ads and store decor that recalled the '50s. "We used nostalgia in the very beginning to give credibility to the brand, so that it didn't feel like it was coming from nowhere," explains Richard Crisman, Old Navy's senior vice-president for marketing. Since then, Old Navy has modernized its marketing with new campaigns emphasizing value and fashion. But many of the original decor touches remain--all 300 stores sport a '50s Chevy pickup truck, for example, and the New York flagship store features a '50s-style diner.

DRAMA FLOP. For Old Navy, the tactic paid off. But not all efforts to manufacture nostalgia have been so successful. Executives at fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken Corp. learned that you can go too far. Three years ago, they decided the brand needed some advertising help from founder Colonel Harlan Sanders. KFC's research showed that consumers still trusted the colonel. The problem: Sanders died in 1980, and KFC could not find old film clips of him that would work in a modern commercial. "Nothing was sound-bitey enough," explained Peter J. Foulds, KFC's advertising vice-president.

So KFC dressed up an actor in the colonel's starched white suit and broadcast black-and-white TV commercials that pretended to show the founder spouting his special brand of homespun wisdom. But the attempt to recreate history didn't wash, and KFC was roundly criticized for defaming the dead. After less than a year, the ads were pulled. Still, KFC hasn't given up on using the colonel altogether. Instead, the company decided the best--and safest--way to evoke his memory was to enlarge his image on buckets of chicken.

Celebrities who are dead, however, are hotter than ever in commercials. Ironically, one factor behind the wave of dead celebs who have come back to endorse products is sophisticated technology. Computer-generated imagery has made it appear that Fred Astaire had a new dancing partner--Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. Lucille Ball sells diamond rings for Service Merchandise Co. And Ed Sullivan is back from the beyond to unveil one more phenom to the world: the Mercedes-Benz sport-utility. "Who is Mr. Introduction-to-America more than Ed Sullivan?" says Mike Jackson, president of Mercedes-Benz of North America.

If only reviving a dying brand were as easy. A&W Restaurants Inc., once famous for carhops on roller skates, is attempting to reverse more than two decades of decline by overhauling its restaurants in a 1950s rock 'n' roll image. A&W Chairman Sidney Feltenstein, a former Burger King Corp. marketing executive, hopes the retro appeal will help them stand out in a crowded segment. Feltenstein says McDonald's Corp. and Burger King can fight over the kids; he's aiming for adults. So far, the makeover appears to be working: At one redone A&W in Dearborn, Mich., middle-age diners dominate the lunchtime crowd. "It reminds you of your youth," says salesman Kirk Pettit, 38, as Beach Boys music wafts from an old Wurlitzer jukebox. Overall, sales at the remodeled stores are up 20% over 1996.

So is nostalgia just the latest hype from Madison Avenue? Or is it the zeitgeist of a culture? While it clearly hits a chord, some worry that overkill can't be far off. "The grainy black-and-white commercials are the shaky camera of the late '90s," scoffs Martin Horn, Chicago-based research director at DDB Needham Worldwide Inc. "We in the ad business slide into derivative behavior." Also dubious is John K. Grace, executive director of Interbrand, a New York-based brand consultancy, who believes American culture in the late '90s lacks distinction, so young and old alike are clinging to the sights and sounds of the past until something better comes along. He compares it to the quiet 1950s, which led to the tumultuous 1960s: "There are no cultural hooks for youth to grab on to today, so they find comfort in what was. But nostalgia can't be sustained."

But others say advertisers are only reflecting Americans' deeper longings to take control of their lives by reconnecting with their idealized past. "If you want to understand values, study our advertising," says Seymour Leventman, a sociology professor at Boston College. He believes the nostalgia craze will only grow as trend-setting baby boomers age.

That's why the New Beetle just might be a tonic for the times. It is our romantic past, reinvented for our hectic here-and-now. "The Beetle is not just empty nostalgia," says Gerald Celente, publisher of Trends Journal. "It is a practical car that is also tied closely to the emotions of a generation."

To unleash that emotion, VW's staid German executives flew to Atlanta to stage a love-in to introduce the Love Bug last month to 300 journalists from around the world. Young women in tie-dyed T-shirts handed out daisies and peace medallions in a psychedelic rock hall. VW's Piech marveled at his little car's enduring appeal. "It is different, and it makes you feel different," he said. "It's like a magnet." Different, yet deeply familiar--a car for the times.

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