When I saw the ads for the new Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I was ready for some binge-watching. In the show, we follow Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s housewife living in New York’s Upper West Side. After helping her husband Joel with his stand-up comedy material—and discovering the flaws in their relationship as well—she ends up becoming a comedian.
The ads evoked a sense of nostalgia even though I hadn’t lived through the 1950s myself. What’s popular in TV and film is spilling over into marketing: Many well-known brands are also using nostalgia in a way that attracts audiences who have never even lived through the depicted time periods.
When we become nostalgic for a time that we’ve never experienced, we’re experiencing what’s known as anemoia. We may feel anemoia while looking at old photos or watching old films. Because we can’t necessarily reminisce per se, we take the history we’ve learned and combine it with our own imagination to form an impression of what things were like.
Image attribution: Fancycrave
Whether we’re feeling nostalgia or anemoia, neurologist and psychiatrist Alan R. Hirsch believes that we’re feeling these emotions about something that we’ve made up on our own. In his study “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” Hirsch discusses how nostalgia is really just an idealized past in which negative emotions cease to exist.
We’ve created this sense of “nostalgia” even though what we’re feeling nostalgic about never truly existed. According to Hirsch, “Idealized past emotions become displaced into inanimate objects, sounds, smells, and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions.”
Therefore, while watching shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we get a rose-colored version of what things were like. We know the history and some of the political, social, and economic issues influencing the story lines, but this never upstages the central plot. As a result, the depiction of the past seems more inviting than the present.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t the only show to evoke a sense of nostalgia. The same could be said about the shows Mad Men and That ’70s Show. But these simpler times aren’t always what they seem.
Remember in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard, attempting to distract Dorothy and her friends, insists that they “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”? These period pieces are doing the same thing. Writes Kat Eschner for Smithsonian magazine, “Period dramas tend to focus on the aesthetics of the past rather than on its real hardships (although some of those are thrown in to keep the story moving).”
As audiences, we’re seduced by the vibrant colors, the old-timey slang, the clothing and hairstyles.
This furthers that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we’re watching these shows and our reference of these times as being “the good ol’ days.”
With the help of social media, many brands are able to dip into the nostalgia factor with #ThrowbackThursday. For example, not too long ago, BMW featured an M535 on their Twitter, evoking the 1980s.
— BMW USA (@BMWUSA) April 24, 2014
While the market for vintage cars is declining, people of all ages can appreciate them. Even younger generations—who weren’t around when these cars were first cool—feel nostalgic toward older cars. Perhaps they’ve seen them in pictures or classic movies. Maybe it evokes fond family memories. While younger generations may not have been alive when the car was produced, the stories and imagery make them feel nostalgic—hence anemoia.
Sneaker brands are following this trend too. Vans may not be using #ThrowbackThursday with their social media posts, but they’re definitely tapping into nostalgia with their posts and website. Their classics collection is promoted on their social media, focusing on the aesthetics—the use of filters, a vintage car, and long tube socks makes it seem as if the photo was from the 1970s or 1980s.
The same goes for clothing. At the beginning of 2017, the Gap brought back some of their staple items with its Generation Gap campaign featuring the famous pocket T-shirt and other popular clothing from the 1990s. The target consumers of generation Z weren’t around to enjoy that decade, but this nostalgia trend definitely has the younger generation feeling anemoia.
What are you feeling nostalgic about? Is it true nostalgia or anemoia?
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Featured image attribution: Les Anderson