If, as stated in L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, ”the past is a foreign country,” then it’s becoming clear that the baby boomers want all that territory for themselves. The cultural landscape is littered with items catering to the boomers’ nostalgic impulses: oldies radio, The Wonder Years, Nick at Nite, The Bradys.
For some time, advertisers have been attentive to boomers’ wistful longing for Days Gone By. Not only are there commercials recycling old pop tunes and nudging distant memories of postwar childhood, there are even ads that recycle old ad slogans and campaigns.
I’m as vulnerable to this selling approach as the next boomer, if not more so. I’ve worn grooves in all my Phil Spector records and will eagerly recite, on command, the lyrics to The Patty Duke Show theme song. Though I have a certain proprietary feeling toward the cultural signposts of my past, I don’t mind sharing them.
I wonder, though, just how much nostalgia-in-advertising I can take before I start viewing my past as less of a personal refuge and more of a mind-numbing marketplace of used sales pitches.
A conspicuous manifestation of this retro advertising movement came last month during the Super Bowl (which should perhaps more properly be called the Annual Winter Festival of New Commercials).
Coca-Cola used the occasion to unveil what it called its ”hilltop reunion” ad, in which 16 members of the multiracial chorus from the 1971 ”I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” spot are shown singing again on the same hilltop almost 19 years later. They are accompanied by some of their children and several other children of varied nationalities. The grown-ups sing the old song, but the young’uns eventually draw them into singing Coca-Cola Classic’s current jingle, ”Can’t Beat the Feeling,” as a counterpoint to the old tune.
As pure nostalgia, the commercial does not resonate in the subconscious the way an old Roy Orbison hit does. Nor does it give the kind of campy jolt that an old episode of The Munsters provides. But it demonstrates, as much as anything does, the way retro advertising wants to push boomers’ nostalgia buttons at the same time that it evokes a reassuring sense of continuity.
Recent events in Eastern Europe notwithstanding, the world is probably no closer to per-fect har-mo-nee than it was in 1971. But the commercial’s good intentions are so infectious that you can almost ignore the sticky-sweet ring it leaves in your subconscious.
Given the way ’60s pop songs have been recycled for commercials throughout the last decade (”I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for California raisins, ”Dedicated to the One I Love” for Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain, to name just two), it was only a matter of time before commercials themselves would assume a Greatest Hits quality.
Choo Choo Charlie, the boy-engineer hero from the Good & Plenty commercials of the ’60s, reappeared in 1985. Old footage of the animated spots was interspersed with yuppies singing along with the G & P jingle, written to the tune of ”Casey Jones” ((Once upon a time there was an engineer/ Choo Choo Charlie was his name, we hear…”).
It was also in 1985 that the bald, muscular Mr. Clean made a comeback in TV spots for the Procter & Gamble household cleaner.
But boomer advertising nostalgia really started booming in ads in the last couple of years, when old slogans like Campbell Soup’s ”M’m! M’m! Good!” and the Timex Group’s ”It Takes a Licking but Keeps on Ticking!” were revived.
In 1988, the legendary cry ”I want my Maypo!” was once again heard through the tube, courtesy of American Home Food Products, which manufactures the hot cereal.
The advertisers want to make us so wistful about the products we knew as children that we just have to get them for our own offspring. Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley began running television ads last fall encouraging young parents to look back with fondness on such classic board games as Chutes and Ladders, Clue, and Candy Land. And remember Kool-Aid’s ”You Loved It as a Kid. You Trust It as a Mother”?
Remember? Already, we’re starting to look back on the ads that have made people Look Back. Is that the inevitable result of retro culture? Nostalgia over nostalgia? Overkill may smother the trend before that happens. But I hope it won’t be at the expense of the pleasant — and unpleasant — discoveries nostalgia can yield.
Case in point: In December, McDonald’s celebrated its 35th anniversary by launching its own nostalgia campaign. The company dusted off four ads from the past, including an exuberant 1971 musical spot with an all-male singing-and- dancing crew of restaurant workers, including a high-stepping John Amos three years before his fame as Good Times‘ father figure.
The campaign also included new commercials, two of them Wonder Years-style vignettes about growing up under the golden arches, complete with misty, soft-lit photography and a wry, wistful, adult narrator.
One advertisement depicts a trio of boys who, feeling inspired by the arches’ heavenly glow, spoil their appetites with ”big, beefy burgers.”
It was the other vignette, however, that left an unusual itch in the brain. Two girls are ready to jump out of their skins anticipating the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show of a rock singer identified only as ”him” (though a reference to sideburns hints that it’s Elvis). Just as the curtain parts and the girls start to scream the TV set goes blank.
”Must have been a blackout,” their dad says sheepishly. One of the daughters, now grown, recalls that this incident led to ”the first of many trips” to McDonald’s. ”Just the sight of those burgers,” she says, ”made us forget our disappointment.”
As the girls nuzzle their dad while he drives the family home, the narrator adds this somewhat chilling capper: ”We found out years later that there hadn’t been a blackout. Dad had unplugged the TV.” The last thing you see is Mom’s smug, almost sinister glance at her husband.
I want a sequel. When did they find out Dad pulled the plug? Was it in the ’60s? And when they found out, did they run off to join a revolutionary commune? Did they ever reconcile with their parents?
We’ll never know. McDonald’s doesn’t plan to show that commercial — or any of the December ”memories” ads — anytime soon.
A shame, really. The campaign was a perfect example of welcome and unwelcome revelations through nostalgia. It was kind of nice to see John Amos and company making things spic-and-span.
But in a peculiar way, it was even better to see that vaguely menacing ad with the two girls and their spoilsport parents. It suggests not only that you can’t live in the past, but that the past may not always be such a wonderful place to visit.