If you’re of a certain age, you remember the familiar warp and warble of a worn cassette tape, the staccato skip of a scratched CD, the screech of dial-up, and every single feature that made flip phones terrible. The ’90s were some very transitional years.
Analog media was being pushed to its limits, (remember dual VHS box sets?) but the often glitchy new digital tech — AOL, floppy disk “computers,” horrible CGI movies like Lawnmower Man — weren’t yet ready to replace the old guard.
What remained was a technological adolescence defined not by its advancements, but by its inherent flaws and limitations. Yet despite this almost laughable lack of functionality millions of Americans remember that time with intense fondness — almost longing.
And brands have noticed.
From iOS apps that make your 12 megapixel iPhone camera look like a 1994 camcorder, to cassette-only music labels, to perfectly (and intentionally) clunky websites, brands large and small are turning to nostalgia marketing to capitalize on the emotional connection consumers have to the earnest, inferior design of the early internet age.
Nineties nostalgia is back, and our favorite part just might just be the many, many flaws.
This year’s 2017 Kia Sorento “Tecmo Bo” ad campaign is a master class in nostalgia. The commercial features a perfect recreation of the popular 1987 Nintendo game “Tecmo Super Bowl,” starring retired running back and video-game legend Bo Jackson. In just one month, the commercial has racked up nearly 250,000 views on YouTube alone not to mention generating significant social media buzz.
The clever commercial flawlessly captures the look and feel of the original NES game with the same pixelated graphics, chunky chiptune music, and glitchy gameplay for an experience that feels remarkably genuine. Even YouTube commenters — people not known for their enthusiasm or tact — reacted enthusiastically to this blast from the past.
But the commitment to detail and 8-bit graphics are only part of what makes this ad so successful. The secret ingredient isn’t just nostalgia — it’s a glitch.
In the original NES game, anyone playing as the Los Angeles Raiders (yes, the Raiders were in L.A. in the ’80s) could simply hand the ball to Bo Jackson and score a touchdown. Hand the ball to Bo, touchdown, repeat. The game was broken.
But instead of being a game-ruining flaw, this “cheat” was one of the game’s most enduring features. People didn’t just love it — they remember it, even 30 years later.
The glitch was so popular that one YouTube video from the bygone era of 2006 features a stellar example of a “crazy” Bo Jackson touchdown run from the game. This video currently has over 10 million views.
But is nostalgia marketing really that simple? Just plug and play? According to writer and technologist Paul Ford, nostalgia might just be the gateway to deeper, more genuine connection.
A Return to Innocence and Earnestness
One Monday night in late 2014, Paul Ford created his own online community. He didn’t set out to build one of the hottest corners of the internet; the whole thing started as a drunken Twitter joke.
The site — tilde.club — references an obscure early website design shortcut, the tilde (.~), that harkens back to the early days of LiveJournal personal “weblogs” and nascent social communities. The inside joke wasn’t lost on thousands of people hungry for a time before massive social networks like Facebook and Instagram.
“Tilde Club was a joke I was gonna share with 10 or 12 people,” Ford said in an interview with Theory of Everything podcaster Benjamin Walker. “Maybe we’d make some goofy webpages, and that was meant to be it.”
Ford promised a tilde.club shell account to anyone who wanted one. Within a week, the waiting list was over 1,000 people. Two years later, the wait list is still thousands strong, making tilde.club harder to get into than an exclusive nightclub.
The crazy thing about this fanatical interest is that it’s built almost exclusively on flawed, outdated web design driven entirely by nostalgia. The site itself looks terrible. Here’s the homepage:
But that’s the point. Much like the ~ itself, nostalgia is used as a shortcut — a hack — to remind people of a simpler time online when we were all a little more sincere.
Tilde.club users embrace its simplicity whole-heartedly. Garish orange and green text dominate the navigation menus and user’s individual sites are riddled with “ASCII art” — a text-only graphic design style that’s a direct precursor to emoji. Tilde.club is where adults play with forgotten childhood toys.
Credit: ASCII art by aptwelephant on Reddit
When asked what drives this phenomenon, Ford struggled with the answer. “I think what actually happened is that, the nostalgia got everyone back to their younger selves, their more vulnerable selves.”
And vulnerability is in right now.
Brands like the NFL and Pepsi have recognized the power of that return to our younger selves with throwback jersey and vintage can labels because they know that engagement — today’s big social currency — is driven by sincerity.
Nostalgia: The Neverending Story
Spotify’s 75 million active users are a diverse and difficult collection of groups. So many users with such different interests is a tough marketing target. Musical tastes typically divide people. Yet Spotify’s March 2016 ad campaign featuring the Falkor and Atreyu characters from 1984 film The Neverending Story, was almost unanimously well-received by hardcore Spotify users and newbies alike.
Not only did Spotify manage to tap into a primal connection with many of its core millennial users, but it also upped the nostalgia ante by embracing the CGI limitations of the original film. The ad is a perfect remake of the somewhat shaky special effects of Falkor flying through the sky. They even cast the original actors — Noah Hathaway (Atreyu) and Alan Oppenheimer, the voice of Falkor — to complete the illusion. Spotify prioritized authenticity, and it worked.
The commercial’s tagline reveals that the song “Never Ending Story,” by Limahl — a dated, hokey synth song from a 1984 children’s movie — is still streamed on Spotify every day.
That’s the real power of nostalgia marketing. The 8-bit graphics, CGI flaws, and outdated music are relics that open up the forgotten childlike parts of us that engaged with the things we loved before we knew enough to judge them as “failures.” Nostalgia is the key that unlocks engagement. Add authenticity, and there are no limits to how deep nostalgia marketing can go.
Want more nostalgia? Learn about ‘8 Brands and Entertainers Doing Nostalgia Marketing Right’