Nostalgia, Sadvertising And Values-Based Marketing

By Natalie Haynes, Contributor

“What is important to me? Who is important to me? What do I stand for? And how can I live according to my values?”

These kinds of questions are crucial for psychological health, and a lot of advertising nudges audiences towards answering them by tapping into core values and striking an emotional chord.

A recent commercial from internet provider Xfinity is a fantastic example of how nostalgia can touch an audience by highlighting the value of family. In the ad, E.T. reconnects with his long-lost friend Elliott. For a moment, he becomes part of Elliott’s family as he eats Reese’s pieces, learns about new technology from Elliott’s children, and takes the children on a bike ride in the sky.

For anyone who saw E.T. in the 80’s, these references very likely pull at heartstrings.

What is it about nostalgia that pulls us in?

A Metametrix text analytics search brings back the top concepts related to the word “nostalgia”, and the most significant concept is “Know you aren’t alone in your feelings”.


“New Lives” and “Past with the Present” are also top results. This suggests that the most effective nostalgia marketing evokes memories from the past and also ties them to the present benefits of the product that the company wants to highlight. The E.T. commercial does that by showing how families of today connect, including connecting with technology (Xfinity’s product).

Nostalgia marketing is very close to another marketing concept that also pulls at heartstrings which some have called “sadvertising”.

Super Bowl ads with the iconic Budweiser Clydesdales are often an example of this. In this ad from 2002, the horses bow towards a New York skyline without the twin towers to show respect for those lost on 9/11/2001.

It has little to do with beer, but the implicit emotional hook says, “We feel how you feel. This is our brand. And this is what we stand for too.”

The 9/11 commercial was controversial at the time.

This one was not.

In 60 seconds, we see values of determination, bravery, and solidarity. Some values are not as controversial as others.

What does this mean for retail?

Emotional ads are clearly associated with higher sales, however, demonstrating values in an ad is not the same as acting in accordance with those values, and often taking a stance creates tradeoffs.

REI’s OptOutside campaign highlights this. In 2015, REI started closing their stores and website on Black Friday in order to encourage outside activity instead of shopping.

This bold choice is in line with the company’s values of environmental stewardship and responsible consumption. It was not a one-time empty marketing stunt, and because REI’s messaging and actions rang of sincerity, consumers engaged, and that generated a 9.3% increase in revenues in 2015, a 7% increase in comparable store sales, and a 23% lift in digital sales.”

Another example of a brand taking a stand is Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who controversially kneeled during the national anthem at football games as a protest of police violence and racial inequality. He ultimately lost his standing as a player in the NFL because of those actions.

Nike’s messaging in the ad says, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Kaepernick took a risk based on his values, and Nike took a risk by standing behind those values, despite knowing that his actions were polarizing and could alienate a large audience.

Was the risk of taking a stand worth it for Nike? It’s hard to know what would have happened otherwise, but we can see that in the days following the commercial debut in September 2018, Nike reported a 27% uptick in sales vs. the prior year, and since then, Nike’s stock has risen from approximately $80/share to $100/share (as of January 2020), outperforming most apparel retailers during that time frame.

In an age where defining a sense of purpose has become more valuable, consumers care more about engaging with brands that “think” like they do.

A Metametrix search on “companies with social values” shows that transparency stands out as a common quality.


In the age of increasing corporate transparency, customers are more able to align with brands that embrace the values they have themselves. According to Forbes, brands that don’t stand for something will soon find that they have fallen behind.

Emotional ads may entertain, but the ones that resonate the most are the ones that help us answer core questions, “What matters to you? What do you stand for? and What do you kneel for?”