It’s Officially Christmas: Faculty Experts Discuss Nostalgia in Holiday Advertising

For many of us, the holidays bring familiar sights and sounds throughout the season. From music and movies to sparkling trees and family traditions, the holiday season brings back memories of the past, which we also see in advertising.

Nostalgia in advertising isn’t new; it isn’t even particularly unique. But something about holiday advertising draws on our heartstrings and makes us think about what used to be.

“Nostalgia creates a direct and immediate emotional connection between brands and consumers,” said Jong-Hyuok Jung, Ph.D., associate professor of strategic communication. “It helps brands to connect consumers’ fond memories with the brand images and create a strong tie between brands and consumers.”

The impact of the holidays takes that a step further. Catherine Coleman, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Strategic Communication, said that nostalgia can help us preserve our sense of self, especially in times of change.

“Holidays tend to be very ritualistic, stemming from our individual and collective memories. Additionally, brands are part of the constellation of resources people use to construct their identities,” she said.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Advertising Season

Nostalgia in advertising can be used in a variety of ways. Hershey’s Kisses’ “Christmas Bells” commercial, which has been running since 1989 and is the longest-running commercial ever. Other companies are call back to their roots:  Coca-Cola released a holiday ad earlier this season that in brought their classic Coca-Cola Santa Claus to life. The brand is often credited for helping share the image of the jolly white-bearded world traveler we know today, and they brought them to life on the big screen with the message that “Anyone can be Santa.”

Other brands have used nostalgia-steeped cultural markers and added their spin on these classics.  In 2018, Macaulay Culkin starred in Google’s “Home Alone Again”  ad, paying homage to the film “Home Alone” as he used the Google home infrastructure to re-create iconic moments from the movie. Coleman explained that these types of commercials primarily target those who grew up watching the movie.

“Then, as people use these cultural resources to share meaning through social media, an original advertising spend can have an enduring effect,” she said.

It’s the Most Advertised Time of the Year

However, advertising isn’t only coming to the screen this holiday season. For many, it came in an old-fashioned form: the mail. As early as October, Amazon sent printed catalogs with gift ideas and toys reminiscent of Sears catalogs—see Amazon’s Holiday Dash. These guides detoured from modern holiday advertising by paying respect to the traditional media forms that came before but with a modern twist. Instead of prices on each item, the pages included QR codes to easily find and purchase gifts on Amazon.

“I was quite surprised by Amazon’s bold move to use catalogs for holidays, but I think it was a clever move to overcome its major weaknesses (e.g., lack of physical stores and fierce price competition from competitors),” explains Jung. “We used to shop for holiday presents at brick-and-mortar retail stores and using catalogs. While it is a joyful tradition for most consumers, in the digital era, the joy of holiday shopping at brick-and-mortar stores is being forgotten and replaced by the convenience of online shopping.”

Print advertising can be seen as an underutilized channel in the digital age, where access to audiences is cheaper and easier outside physical media.

“The catalog works as a niche medium to break through the ad clutter in the world of the plethora of advertising on social and digital media. For older generations, it helps them to remember their fond memories back to the online shopping world while working as a fresh reminder for the younger generations who are exhausted with advertising on social and digital media spheres,” Jung said.