Pokémon GO and Stranger Things: Building on Nostalgia

The summer of 2016 will be remembered for two cultural productions that used nostalgia to build their popularity: the Pokémon GO mobile app and Netflix’s Stranger Thingsscience-fiction series.

When used properly, nostalgia can become a powerful tool in any business model. A study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research arrives at the conclusion that consumers spend more when they feel nostalgic. Moreover, research indicates that being nostalgic can help fight solitude, boredom and anxiety and increase tolerance and generosity levels.

In the case of the Pokémon GO mobile app and the Stranger Things TV series, it is obvious that nostalgia has the power to strike a nerve and conjure up emotions of an entire generation.

Pokémon GO

A major factor that explains the success of Pokémon GO is the nostalgic relationship that the public entertains with the franchise. Otherwise, how can one explain why Ingress—a game produced by the same studio and based on the same gaming mechanisms—has not been as successful?

Pokémon has just celebrated its 20 years of existence and it’s easy to understand why the mobile game is so popular among the 20–35 age group. This is the generation on which the Pokémania left its mark. Nick Johnson, the first player to have collected all of the Pokémons in Pokémon GO, was 8 years old when the popular franchise was launched on GameBoy Advance in 1996.

According to a study led by the mfour polling firm, 83% of Pokémon GO players are aged 18 to 34. Another study released by StartApp advances 90%. This generation, which was aged between 5 and 15 years at the end of the 1990s, is also the digital native generation that grew up with the internet and massively adopted mobile technology. In Canada, the 18–34 age group today represents the most highly mobile group, 95% of which has access to a smartphone (fall 2016 survey, MTM).

Stranger Things

Released in the middle of summer, Stranger Things aroused the public’s curiosity with the broadcast of a trailer strewn with references to fantasy cinema of the 1980s and multiple clichés such as a group of friends in an isolated American town, a strange apparition, a single mother and an honest sheriff in a cold war environment… Everything was in place to tease the children of the 1980s who had grown up developing a fusional relationship with the family VHS player.

Stranger Things tells the story of a group of friends who take off in search of a friend who mysteriously disappeared. Come to mind here movies that popularized the genre such as Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986) and The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985). The references and visual hints are so numerous and well undertaken that the Internet community had fun referencing them. The most obvious reference is the one made to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Another one of the series’ strong points is to imagine lovable characters that are impeccably incarnated and too intelligent to be cool at school. These 12-year-old heroes are better at math and literature than they are at sports and spend their time at the radio club or playing The Call of Cthulhu roleplay game in the basement of the family home.

This anecdote is not without significance seeing as the basement culture is the culture of heroic fantasy, a culture that popularized reading Tolkien and playing Warhammer and that later launched gaming licenses the likes of World of Warcraft and EverQuest. It’s this same community of geeks that will pressure Peter Jackson at the beginning of the millennium to produce the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These young geeks are as passionate about technology and make daily use of walkie-talkies (Mike’s and Lucas’ TRC-214) or the school’s radio transmitter. Technology allows the series to cultivate nostalgia with artefacts that everyone remembers: the Panasonic RX-5090 boombox, the 22” Mitsubishi TV, the yellow wireline phone, etc.

Set in a remote community in the 1980s, where paranormal events occur without the entire planet being instantly informed of them, Stranger Things cultivates the nostalgia of an era without the internet that had not yet entered the virtual instant. The series confronts radio to streaming, the walkie-talkie to the mobile phone, the Pentax camera to Instagram. As the Duffer brothers explain, “We like going back to a time — and I'm sure nostalgia is feeding into that — where cell phones and the internet weren't around.”

It seems to be a winning formula given data collected by Parrot Analytics shows that Stranger Things is the first original series created by a video on demand (VOD) service provider to have generated more social media buzz than a traditional TV series.

Source: Parrot Analytics

Monetizing nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool that sends consumers back to a bygone yet idealized era where everything seemed simpler. Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Lego among others use nostalgia as a marketing tool and draw on past decades’ positive cultural memories to inspire their campaigns.

Nostalgia is derived from the Greek words nostos (returning home) and algia (pain). It’s literally a happy form of suffering. For example, returning home to find your old collection of VHS tapes. Although you realize that time has passed, you nevertheless enjoy a positive experience.

“In an age of impersonal digital media, building social connectedness through nostalgia is an easy way for companies to leverage the optimistic feelings that often accompany walks down memory lane,” points out Forbes’ Lauren Friedman.

Indeed, the audience finds in Stranger Things and Pokémon GO a reassuring universe that they know by heart. This maybe explains why Netflix has also begun producing reboots of the 1990s and 2000s the likes of Full HouseGilmore Girls and Twin Peaks.

Fabien Loszach
Fabien Loszach holds a doctorate in sociology specialized in social imagery, art and pop culture. He works for the Brad agency as its director of interactive strategy and as a consultant in the media and digital fields. Furthermore, he contributes as a commentator to the digital culture show La sphère broadcast on Ici Radio-Canada Première. Each week, he discusses a current issue from a sociological perspective.
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