Zeal and the Zeitgeist (Back to the Future)

The Year was 1985…

When I think about the quintessential 80s movie, nothing lands quite like Back to the Future. It wasn’t just a film made in the 80s, rife with tropes of the time—it was a movie that encapsulated the entire feel of the decade. Marty McFly didn’t just hop back to 1955—he brought the culture, language, style, concepts, and the zeitgeist of the 1980s with him. 

Here’s the thing. If you watched Back to the Future with an older parent or grandparent in 1985, they probably identified more with the hoop skirts and town malt shop than they did with Marty’s “life preserver” and his love of skateboarding. It alludes to something more than a generational gap, though. It’s indicative of the defining spirit of a particular time in history when we were most cognizant and curious about the world around us. 

To a point: it’s when our ideas and beliefs were most-reflected in the culture—and it points to a big lesson for modern advertisers. 

The highway of life has many exits

There’s a commonly accepted premise that, in a given generation, many people embrace a sense of nostalgia for a particular time period, usually a decade or more previous. 

To use an obvious analogy: we’re all traveling on the highway of life. There comes a time when we all choose to turn off the highway. We come to a rolling stop in a period of time that’s familiar and comfortable, and we embrace the cultural ethos of the time. The world still turns and time trudges ever-forward, but wherever we’ve turned off the highway becomes home. 

The reason so many people put on their blinkers and exit at the same time has to do with shared zeitgeist. We’re all going through roughly the same thing, at the same time, in the same context. The hippie movement of the 70s. The rebelliousness of the 80s. The prosperity of the 90s. Kennedy. The Cold War. Y2K. 9/11. (see also: We Didn’t Start the Fire)

While we all had different life experiences during these periods, they all occurred with common context. As a result, we share sentiments about the time period and our relationship to it. You didn’t need to play guitar or skateboard to identify with Marty in ‘85—and it’s the same reason your elders gravitated to Lorraine and George in ’55. These characters represented the familiar. 


Advertising evolves with the ethos

A good advertisement resonates with its target audience in an undeniable way. More than delivering a strong value proposition, however, the mode of conveyance needs to tap into the ethos most strongly connected with that audience. Effective advertising needs to align with the defining spirit of the particular period of history most-treasured by the audience. 

Let’s say that teenage you fondly remembers seeing Back to the Future in 1985. Life was never better! Since then, you’ve always had an affinity for Nike, and preferred Pepsi over Coke. Then, in the 90s, you grew up and started your own family. While Nike and Pepsi stayed household staples for you and your kids, you also found yourself drawn to brands like Apple—the 1997 “think different” slogan resonated with your 80s mentality—and Red Bull, which showed that commercials can still be cheeky.

In the 90s and early aughts, advertisers’ primary audience was tied to the zeitgeist of the 80s, and their approach to advertising needed to reflect that. Today, the messaging is different because the ethos is different. Early 2000s kids who grew up with clunky iMacs are drawn to the sleek form factor of an iPad Air and those who watched the X-Games in their youth still drink Red Bull because it represents their zeal for adrenaline. 

The brands stayed the same; their advertising tactics changed.


History doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes 

It’s the job of advertisers to understand not only the product they’re selling, but the mindset of the audience they’re selling to. This includes understanding how they think based on the ethos that’s most-prevalent in their mind. Does your marketing square up with that audience’s shared social context?

What many advertisers don’t realize is that the key to creating appeal today is to look back and benchmark the zeitgeist 10-20 years past. Look at video games and movies for a great (albeit incredibly lazy) example. How often do you see a “remastered” version of media hit the shelves? It’s a game we’ve played before or a movie we’ve seen several times; yet, remastered versions still sell well. Why? Because they leverage nostalgia into the present: a concept you already know and love, made better.  

Effective advertising packages more than a product: it packages feelings. Those feelings come from understanding how an audience feels about a product within the context of their own nostalgia. Give them messaging that makes sense within the context of a time they know and love, and they’ll feel more strongly connected to whatever it is you’re pitching. 

Trying to capture the zeitgeist of a particular moment in time? JXM can help you figure out what resonates with your audience, so you can deliver a message that lands contextually—whether in 1955, 1985 or 2015.