Close-up: Advertising welcomes a new age of nostalgia

More ads from the past, or elements of them, are making a comeback. Is this all down to economics, Matt Williams asks.

As Mad Men returns to UK TV screens for a second series of life in the olden days of advertising, a closer look at the box shows that it isn't just the programme that is tapping into feelings of nostalgia. More and more ads from the past, or at least elements from them, seem to be making a comeback too.

Already in 2009, Heinz and Guinness have released campaigns that include clips of previous ads, while Comic Relief is trying to pull together a number of famous advertising characters from the past, such as Flat Eric and Bertie Bassett, for a campaign called "Brand Aid".

There are tempting reasons to use nostalgic ads in today's market. For a start, with times being tough, brands can rarely afford to invest too much time or money in creating and building new characters or concepts. If there is already a well-loved, tried and tested campaign out there, then it can make sense to develop it.

This is certainly the angle that Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO took for Heinz's new ad. The montage of familiar Baked Beans ads from the past aimed to reinforce the brand's traditional British values, and remind consumers of its long and illustrious history.

Giles Jepson, the marketing director of beans, kids meals and soups at Heinz, says: "Too often it is tempting to do something different but when you have such strong properties as 'Beanz Meanz Heinz', it would be irresponsible to disregard them."

Similarly, another huge attribute of a nostalgic ad is its ability to allow consumers to reminisce about their past relationship with the product.

Tom Vick, the JWT managing director, says: "Some brands have emotional and functional values in place that haven't changed for 40 or 50 years, so a nostalgic ad is a way of reawakening those latent warm and fuzzy sentiments that people have, and reaffirming their loyalty."

This seems to be particularly poignant in these tough economic conditions, as consumers look back blissfully at less threatening times. Virgin Atlantic, for example, has taken a nostalgic view of the 80s in its new ad, which certainly seems to have caught consumers' attention.

Johnny Hornby, the managing partner of CHI & Partners, says: "We're finding that in the recession, consumers are getting back to basics and going with what they know. They are purchasing items that give them warmth and a sense of security, which is why these nostalgic ads appeal."

The idea of reminiscing about "the good old days" also proved effective for Hovis last year, when an ad by Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy took a nostalgically sentimental look at key periods in Britain's history.

It allowed consumers to remember a number of pertinent moments from the 20th century, such as both World Wars, England's World Cup win and the miners' strike.

But for Danny Brooke-Taylor, the creative director at MCBD, it was just as important that the ad had something to say about the present day, as it did about Hovis' past. "It was vital for the boy to end up in the modern day, as it gave the message that the brand is just as important to families now as it has ever been," he says.

"If the boy had stopped running halfway through, for instance, then it would just have been another navel-gazing, self-indulgent ad."

Indulgence appears to be the biggest hurdle to overcome when creating a nostalgic ad. If a brand focuses too much on its past glories, consumers will begin to question its relevance in modern society.

There's also the worry that nostalgia is only a state of mind, and consumers will not pay money simply because they used to have a strong relationship with a product.

Tom Morton, the executive planning director of TBWA\London, says: "Nostalgia is something people like to feel, but aren't so happy to pay for. Look at the demise of Woolworths. When it shut down, everyone was really sad and nostalgic about it, but the fact is that when it came down to shopping, consumers were happy to go elsewhere."

There's also the question of timing. Laurence Green, the Fallon chairman, believes Hovis and Heinz have worked so well recently because they are both relatively isolated incidents of brands capitalising on nostalgia.

"In a recession, there's going to be the temptation for more and more brands to go down the 'tried and tested' nostalgia route," Green says. "But it's not going to work if everyone's doing it. The risk for those who get in on the act later is that the effectiveness of such an approach on consumers will diminish."

In a recession, well-loved existing ideas, characters or slogans are a commodity that can be invaluable to a brand. Therefore, utilising what a brand already has at its disposal is a logical way for an agency to ensure that it's providing its client with an element of safety when it is at its most nervous.

But providing a sense of nostalgia can only work for specific brands, and any campaign that does dwell on the technique must also ensure that it has something of relevance to say. Virgin Atlantic and Guinness, for example, both had an anniversary to celebrate, while Heinz was emphasising that the product was still as much as a part of a family lifestyle as it has ever been.

So while it may work for a handful of companies, the recession should still be a time to come out fighting and try to take a brand forward in new directions, rather than wallowing in the good times that may have been had in the past.

"If you're tempted to do a nostalgic ad, you have to ask yourself what you're contributing to the here and now," Brooke-Taylor says. "It fills me with dread to think of the industry just banging out its greatest hits collections."

SMASH - Martians

Simon Learman, joint executive creative director, McCann Erickson

Remakes are always tricky. Context is everything. (Hollywood is smart enough to completely reinvent old material.) So, when adland gets all warm and nostalgic, I begin to worry.

The original Smash campaign was, is, genius. And the remake is very close to the old format. It's certainly a well-written and coherent piece of communication, too.

But Smash is asking consumers to simply carry on where they left off decades before. That may be both presumptuous and dangerous. While anecdotal evidence suggests that people love classic campaigns, I'm not convinced they generate anything more than a short-term spike.

The first time around, Smash created a playful, 70s view of the future. This modern version diminishes that perspective, and in the process makes the whole thing feel a little kitsch.

Am I the only one who's growing tired of the trend for nostalgic advertising?

TANGO - You know when you've been Tango'ed

Tom Morton, executive planning director, TBWA\London

"You know when you've been Tango'ed" hit the viewing public almost as hard as the girthy orange slapman hit the poor Tango drinker in the launch ad.

Throughout the 90s, the brand hit the screen with a mixture of peaches such as Tango Man and Ray Gardner for Blackcurrant Tango, and lemons including a bizarre self-referential film promising "no rubbish Tango ads ever".

The campaign's return in 2001 saw a return to form. Tango had ditched its "concept album" phase of making ads about ads and resurrected its original idea of "the hit of the whole fruit".

We saw self-inflicted Tango hunters going to extremes to experience the different hits of Tango's flavours, from the sharp hit of real oranges to the wet drench of real apples. Tango had brilliantly refreshed what made the brand iconic and, importantly, had still managed to make it work for its full range of drinks.