From Mental Illness to Marketing: the Psychology of Nostalgia

Brand Matters

What is Nostalgia?

Nostalgia was first defined by Johannes Hoffer, a Swiss doctor who described the condition as “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” He noticed symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even fever in Swiss mercenaries who were longing for their native land. He coined the term using the roots nostos, a Greek word for returning home, and algos, pain or longing. Literally, nostalgia was a condition of homesickness.

The negative implications of nostalgia continued into modern psychology. It was a condition likened to depression and melancholy. Only recently have psychologists acknowledged the benefits of nostalgia and demerited its understanding as an illness.

Nostalgia in the Now

Modern psychologists have determined that nostalgia is not a mental illness. In fact, it’s universal part of the human experience, regardless of age or culture. Continually, frequent dips into these recesses of our minds are associated with higher self-esteem and a greater sense of belonging. According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, “most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week.”

In many recent STUDIES, “participants who were induced to feel nostalgic expressed more optimism of the future. This optimism is related to two other factors. First, nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others. This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves. That increase in self-esteem then increases feelings of optimism.”

Imagine remembering A SONG you listened to as a kid. You look it up on YouTube, find the music video, and share it with a friend. They remember the video and the lyrics, and they’re as excited about it as you are. Now you both identify with each other in a way you didn’t before. Nostalgia is about community and belonging: it confirms that we were, and are, a part of something. We are inherently connected.

According to John Tierney of THE NEW YORK TIMES:

“A quick way to induce nostalgia is through music, which has become a favorite tool of RESEARCHERS. In an experiment in the Netherlands, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University and colleagues found that listening to songs made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically.

That warm glow was investigated in southern China by Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University. By tracking students over the course of a month, SHE AND COLLEAGUES FOUND that feelings of nostalgia were more common on cold days. The researchers also found that people in a cool room (68 degrees Fahrenheit) were more likely to nostalgize than people in warmer rooms.”

Nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion. Our memories are not always positive, but the act of nostalgia makes life feel more meaningful and gives us a sense of purpose. People who feel nostalgia more often tend to have a more optimistic outlook on life, higher self-esteem, and are literally less cold.

Nostalgia Marketing

We’re all familiar with nostalgia marketing, even if we don’t use that terminology ourselves. Essentially, advertisers and marketers now realize the power of nostalgia. They take advantage of all the feel-goods we get from remembering childhood. Now, many ad campaigns from major brands feature music, television, and other pop culture media from our childhoods. This marketing tactic fosters that sense of inclusion between us and the product they are selling.


SPOTIFY released an ad campaign featuring Never Ending Story, ending with a link to listen to their “Never Ending ’80s” playlist.


After Netflix released “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross to their streaming service, ADOBE RELEASED AN AD CAMPAIGN titled “The Joy of Sketching.” The ad features the Adobe Photoshop Sketch application on the iPad Pro, but with the same aesthetic, music, and vocabulary of the original Bob Ross show.

Pokemon Go

POKEMON GO is the most recent, notable success in nostalgia marketing. The reboot of Pokemon blew up in the summer of 2016 and has generated approximately $35 million in revenue since. Though it may seem like a game for kids, it is targeting a particular audience: people who were young in the 90’s. The app is not designed for kids because you need a mobile phone with a data plan and the ability to travel around your city. It is an app designed for people nostalgic for the 1998 Gameboy hit and subsequent card games, tv shows, etc.

In fact, Niantic developed a similar game, INGRESS, before Pokemon Go. By similar, we mean it’s the exact same game minus the Pokemon. It didn’t do very well. Nostalgia for the old Pokemon games was the most significant feature in the Niantic’s success.

Photo by Namroud Gorguis on Unsplash