Memories for sale

28 August 2009

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Nostalgia is a very powerful feeling. It forces people to do strange and sometimes crazy things.

Dads refuse to throw out their ‘awesome’ vinyl collections, despite owning neither a turntable nor a decent record.

Mums hold on to all their old Woman’s Weekly cookbooks, no matter how outdated the recipes are (fondue anyone?).

And then there’s the grandparents, who hoard their coveted collection of National Geographic back issues, even though no one has ever flicked past the third page.

Nostalgia is that yearning for an idealised past – it’s a compelling feeling and it sells.

In the wake of the recent rose-tinted commemorations of Woodstock, nostalgia has become a more potent marketing force than ever.

40 years ago, half a million hippies, stoners and music fans descended upon a muddy farm in upstate New York for a free concert.

That concert has subsequently become mythologised in the decades since, as the peak of free love, free peace and (in a legal sense) free drugs.

However, 40 years after music’s most famous event, the foggy minds of music lovers have been exploited once again.

Six CD box sets, director’s cut documentaries, and even a new feature film have all spawned coincidentally, at Woodstock’s ruby anniversary.  It seems that aged hippies are just as ripe for the picking as the rest of us when it comes to the repackaging of our memories for sale.

Woodstock isn’t the only example of rehashed musical comebacks.

Elvis Presley has made more money posthumously than he ever dreamed of alive; Nirvana continues to top ‘best song ever’ charts and; most recently, Michael Jackson’s mysterious death sent his back catalogue hurtling toward the top of music charts worldwide.

The marketing of memories is not a new phenomenon and it certainly isn’t confined to music.  Advertisers know that nostalgia moves product and they are masters at using it.

Employed effectively, nostalgia can sell everything from beer to BMWs, credit cards to Coke.

Hell, if I were asked to sell a million litres of Carlton Draught, I would have the Hoodoo Gurus on the phone straight away (pending Cold Chisel’s availability, of course.)

It seems that nostalgia is not just a simple yearning for the ‘good old days’ any more, but a cynical marketing tool. Marketers take our own ideas of nostalgia and morph it into something different.

Memories have become big business as key moments in history have become intertwined with  products.

Nostalgia marketing has become so ubiquitous it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell what memories of the past are real and what are not.

History is almost being rewritten as advertisers create an idealised version of the past which foregoes reality.

Tellingly, it’s not just history’s big moments that advertisers play on. Emotions as simple as a primary school crush or the fun one can have at a beach have been manipulated into instruments to sell things to us.

Put a Coldplay song behind a poorly-acted nuclear family scene and voila!  You’ve got yourself an ad for a Low Rate Credit Card.

As consumers, we seem to have blatantly fallen for this smoke and mirrors trick.

But this is more than just consumer habits; it’s also a damning reflection of society.

We have embedded ourselves so deeply into this hyper-consumer culture that we now have no time to make our own memories – we have to buy them!

Ironically, people spend so much of their lives trying to attain the possessions that advertisers sell, they have no time left to experience the ‘good times’ that were invoked to sell them.

This ambush of nostalgia has tainted what the feeling really is, people cherishing their own memories of the past.

Nostalgia compels people to keep, collect and desire touchstones that help to transport them to another time and another place.

Advertisers have cottoned on to this and now concoct the perfect version of a memory to sell us LCD televisions and triple cheeseburgers.

Nostalgia isn’t just a reason to stash away old birthday cards any more – it’s a potent marketing tool that fuels the commercialisation of people’s memories.

I wonder if the drug-fuelled idealists at Woodstock saw that one coming?

Tom Cowie is a final-year Journalism student at La Trobe University.