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Ads From the Past With Modern Touches

Reviving time-tested advertising characters and commercials has long been a popular tactic in marketing, particularly during uncertain times when new creative ideas are often shunted aside for the reassuringly familiar. But nostalgia on Madison Avenue is not quite what it used to be.

Advertising and the popular culture that it reflects have been awash in comforting fare since Sept. 11, although the marketing of the past now is being garnished with some modern touches.

The new twists on retromania take many forms. Once-popular products that faded into insignificance - Breck shampoo, Sea & Ski sun-care lotion, St. Joseph aspirin, the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake lines of licensed merchandise - are being brought back with splashy ads. Elements of vintage campaigns, like the tub of Parkay margarine that "talks" and the Carly Simon song "Anticipation" that heralds the arrival of Heinz ketchup on a hamburger, are being woven into new, tongue-in-cheek commercials.

Some marketers are serving up bygone cultural touchstones in modernized versions, as when the Old Navy division of Gap re-presents "The Brady Bunch" as "The Rugby Bunch" to sell sporty striped shirts. Other marketers like Ford Motor, General Electric, S. C. Johnson, PepsiCo and Sears, Roebuck are sponsoring campaigns that celebrate their heritage, history and founders while presenting their consumer-friendly bona fides for the future.

"When we feel less secure, with less control over our daily lives, we reach out in brands to connect with a time when things seemed better, more comfortable," said Marc Gobé, president at the New York office of the Désgrippes Gobé Group, a corporate identity consulting company.

"It transcends branding, it transcends commerce," Mr. Gobé said. "It's about finding security, what we can trust."

But while the tried-and-true trend may be successful in the short term, marketing experts warn that it may be self-defeating in the long run.

"I gave a talk recently on `The Tyranny of the Familiar,' " said Dr. Bob Deutsch, a communications consultant to the DDB Worldwide agency in New York, owned by the Omnicom Group. "In times of crises, one thing you do is harken back to the familiar, but if it's the only thing you do, you'll fall flat on your face."

"What works best is to recalibrate the familiar," he added, "to affirm the audience and also challenge the audience to expand its vision of the world."

Advertisers and agencies seem to be getting the message. They are seeking to avoid the pitfalls inherent in retrospective marketing, primarily by contemporizing the classic elements to make them relevant to current consumers, especially those in the freer-spending younger age brackets.

"It's something we thought a lot about because it's tricky," said Michael Collins, associate creative director at Grey Worldwide in New York, a division of the Grey Global Group that is reviving the talkative tub of Parkay margarine for the brand's present owner, ConAgra Foods. The device, which appeared originally from 1973 to 1985, was meant to convey that Parkay tasted enough like butter to confuse consumers.

"As great as the recognition and nostalgia are, we can't simply bring back exactly the same thing," Mr. Collins said. So after research among consumers, a decision was made that the tub must "live in the present," he added, delivering its mocking message "with more of a wink" than before by poking fun at the idea it can speak.

Twice in recent months, the Pepsi-Cola North America division of PepsiCo and its agency, the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, part of Omnicom, have introduced nostalgic pitches with updated angles.

Extravagant commercials that appeared during the Super Bowl in February revisited Pepsi-Cola jingles from the 1950's onward, but they were performed in cheeky fashion by a current pop star, Britney Spears. And "For those who think young," the Pepsi-Cola slogan from 1961 to 1964, was remade into "Think young, drink young" for the Diet Pepsi brand in a commercial spoofing the 1969 movie "Easy Rider."

The Spears spots were "a little campy, which made it fun, modern, forward-looking, not, `We're Pepsi; we've been around for years,' " said Katie Lacey, vice president for marketing at Pepsi-Cola North America in Purchase, N.Y.

"We thought teens and young adults would respond more to the modern scenes with Britney," she added, "but they loved the 50's Britney even though they have no idea what the real 50's were."

Retro-marketing may work better in some categories, like financial services, than others. For instance, new commercials for the New York Life Insurance Company show a father and daughter a century ago and in an unspecified future.

"It's about the core value of insurance," said Ewen Cameron, chief executive at the New York Life agency, Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in New York, part of the Red Cell division of the WPP Group. "You want that reassurance it will be there to pay you."

Archival film and photographs of Henry Ford, the Model T, Frank Sinatra with a vintage Thunderbird and the first Mustang are intrinsic parts of a corporate image campaign for Ford. But the commercials and print ads address the future as much as - if not more than - the past.

"Nowhere in our strategy will you find the word `nostalgia,' " said Mike Priebe, senior creative director at the Ford Motor agency, the Detroit office of J. Walter Thompson, also part of WPP. "We have a saying around here that we like to think we're making history, not just talking about history."

"Our campaign is the result of thinking how we could show a consistency of vision and values over the years," Mr. Priebe said, and "capture the sense that Ford has the same kind of passion and spirit as it had back then." So the archival materials are interspersed with shots of contemporary Ford products like the Focus subcompact as William Clay Ford Jr., the chairman and chief executive, links the company's past and present to its future.

That is also necessary, marketers say, when reintroducing products with storied pasts.

"Consumers looking to harken back to a simpler time gravitate to things they trust," said Jeffrey S. Himmel, chairman at the Himmel Group in New York, which specializes in revitalizing ghost brands. "But at the end of the day, the product has to be relevant, it has to perform. Nostalgia by itself is insufficient."

Mr. Himmel has learned that lesson in selling brands like Gold Bond powder, Lavoris mouthwash and Ovaltine malt flavoring. His current reclamation project is Breck shampoo, to which he has licensed the marketing rights from the Dial Corporation.

"Notwithstanding the fact it had an extremely raggedy ride the last 25 years, Breck is a brand with a trusted heritage that still stands for beautiful hair," Mr. Himmel said. So commercials, being created internally, concentrate on attributes recalled by consumers "who grew up with the brand," he added, like its formula, bottle and scent.

"The moment they smell the Breck, people say, `Omigod, I remember that,' " Mr. Himmel said.

The more that revived products and retrospective pitches permeate the American culture, according to one executive, the more that nostalgia becomes an increasingly effective marketing approach.

"Especially today, when life is so much more complicated no matter your age, there is always a time in your life when your life seemed simpler," said Larry W. Jones, executive vice president and general manager at TV Land in New York, a cable network owned by Viacom. "An 18-year-old looks back to being 9 or 10 and says, `Man, I didn't realize I had it so easy.' "

That was underlined when TV Land began getting requests from viewers in their late 20's and early 30's for "The Donna Reed Show," a sitcom that was off the air long before they grew up.

Executives soon realized the reason for the requests, Mr. Jones said. "These viewers have nostalgic feelings for watching `Donna Reed' reruns with their parents 15 years ago" on the Nick at Nite program block on Nickelodeon, a TV Land sibling.

In other words, nostalgia for nostalgia.


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 9, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.