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Nostalgia On Consumption Essay

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Nostalgic bonding: Exploring
the role of nostalgia in the
consumption experience
Received in revised form.

Morris B. Holbrook
is the W. T. Dillard Professor of Marketing at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University, New York, USA. He graduated from Harvard College (1965) and received his MBA (1967) and PhD (1975) degrees from Columbia University. Since 1975, he has taught courses at the Columbia Business School and has conducted research covering a wide variety of topics in marketing and consumer behaviour with a special focus on issues related to communication in general and to aesthetics, semiotics, hermeneutics, art, entertainment, music, motion pictures, nostalgia, and stereography in particular.

Robert M. Schindler
is Associate Professor, School of Business, Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, USA. He received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts and has been at Rutgers since 1989. In addition to his work on the role of nostalgia and early experience in consumer preferences, he has studied the psychological effects of nine endings and other pricing techniques and the impact of consumer-to-consumer information on the internet.


The recently awakened awareness of the past has produced a flurry of research directed towards understanding the nostalgic aspects of the human condition, towards investigating the role of nostalgia in the lives of consumers, and towards the application of such knowledge to the design of marketing strategies. With rare exceptions, however, such research has pursued a quantitative survey-based approach to establishing the chronologyrelated and personality-driven aspects of nostalgia. To explore the nature and types of nostalgic bonding in greater depth, the present study pursues an interpretive approach to understanding the role of nostalgia in the consumption experience. Specifically, it applies a collective approach to subjective personal introspection to draw inferences concerning the key types of nostalgic experience.

Morris B. Holbrook
Graduate School of
Columbia University,
New York,
NY 10027, USA
Tel: +1 212 873 7324
[email protected];

Historians (eg Lowenthal, 1985),
sociologists (eg Davis, 1979) and
journalists (eg Rothenberg, 1989) agree
that now is a time characterised by a
flourishing of nostalgia, where the past
is regarded as ‘the foreign country with
the healthiest tourist trade of all’
(Lowenthal, 1985, p. 4). There seems to
be a widespread ‘yearning for

Nostalgia, attitude,
subjective personal

yesterday’ (Davis, 1979) when, in the
words of Lennon and McCartney (1965)
‘all our troubles seemed so far away’.
Although this emerging nostalgic ethos
has been connected to the turning of the
millennium (Brown et al., 1996), it also
appears to owe a great deal to the
pervasive baby-boom phenomenon. For
the first time and en masse, the
multitudinous baby boomers have now

Journal of Consumer Behaviour Vol. 3, 2, 107–127 #Henry Stewart Publications 1479-1838


Morris B. Holbrook and Robert M. Schindler

grown old enough to have something to
be nostalgic about (Garland, 1991). At
the cognitive level — sometimes
referred to as collective memory or
generational memories — this entails a
bias towards recalling key moments
associated with one’s youth (Schuman
and Scott, 1989; Scott and Zac, 1993).
Even more telling and more
quintessentially nostalgic, however, are
the affective experiences associated with
those cognitive memories of days gone
by in general and with associative links
of these feelings to objects of the past in
particular (Belk, 1988; Holbrook, 1993b).
Companies marketing consumer
products appear to have enthusiastically
embraced this burgeoning influence of
nostalgia (Brown, 2001; Havlena and
Holak, 1991; Smith and Clurman, 1997).
As a result, there has been a
proliferation in the use of pop-culture
icons (Humphrey Bogart, Louis
Armstrong), music (‘Revolution’, ‘I
Want to Teach the World to Sing’), and
styles (film noir, Beat Generation) from
the past parading across the television
screen in movie reruns sit-com revivals
and television commercials aimed at
target segments whose age
characteristics and personal motivations
render them especially vulnerable to
appreciating such images drawn from
the period of their youth. Furthermore,
increasingly numerous new products
appeal directly to consumers’ nostalgic
feelings, ranging from automobiles such
as the new Beetle (Gibney, 1999) or the
PT Cruiser (Haas, 2000) to the
reintroduction of children’s toys such as
Lincoln Logs, G. I. Joe and Shrinky
Dinks (Bhatia, 2001). Clearly, a better
understanding of nostalgia and its
interaction with consumer products
could facilitate and guide a bettertargeted use of its power as an aid to marketing.
This paper adopts the conceptualisation
of nostalgia proposed by Holbrook and


Schindler (1991, p. 330) and amends
their phraseology slightly so as to
emphasise the role of consumption
experiences (Holbrook and Hirschman,
1982). Specifically, the authors define
nostalgia as:
‘A preference (general liking, positive
attitude or favourable effect) towards
experiences associated with objects
(people, places or things) that were more
common (popular, fashionable or widely
circulated) when one was younger (in
early adulthood, in adolescence, in
childhood or even before birth)’.

In stressing the role of ‘experiences
associated with objects . . . that were
more common . . . when one was
younger’, this view envisions that
nostalgia attaches primarily to objectrelated experiences that have somehow been lost — either because the relevant
object-related experiences have become
difficult to obtain or because the
consumer in question has moved on to a
consumption pattern in which they are
no longer included due to changes in
tastes, geographical displacements, or
even losses caused by fires, earthquakes
or other natural disasters (Sayre, 1994).
Thus, a penchant for eating ice cream
that has persisted since one was a child
would in no sense be considered
nostalgic, even though it harks back to
earlier times. But a fond recollection of
eating junket — the vanilla-flavoured
rennet custard that one’s mother used to
cook on the stove before the days of
prepackaged pudding which no longer
appears on the grocer’s shelves or in
one’s consumption-oriented time
budgets — would qualify as a truly
nostalgic sentiment.
These same authors have
demonstrated the existence of such a
phenomenon empirically by showing a
nonmonotonic relationship for timedated stimuli between object-specific age and liking — with an age-related
preference peak that tends to occur for
objects associated with one’s
adolescence or early adulthood in the
case of popular music (Holbrook and

Journal of Consumer Behaviour Vol. 3, 2, 107–127 #Henry Stewart Publications 1479-1838

Nostalgic bonding

Schindler, 1989), movie stars (Holbrook
and Schindler, 1994), movies (Holbrook
and Schindler, 1996) and fashions
(Schindler and Holbrook, 1993). In other
words, via a process called nostalgic
bonding, a consumer’s history of
personal interaction with a product
during a critical period of preference
formation that occurs roughly in the
vicinity of age 20 (give or take a few
years in either direction) can create a
lifelong preference for that object. Such
an object may come to perform a selfexpressive function (Belk, 1988; Richins, 1994b; Sayre and Horne, 1996) in the
consumer’s array of actual or
aspirational material possessions
(Dittmar, 1992). It also appears that
certain individuals — characterised by a
tendency towards nostalgia or nostalgia
proneness — tend to experience such
nostalgic bonding more than others
(Holbrook, 1993a, 1994). Such a
personality trait is more specific or more
focused than those associated with more
general concepts of materialism
(Richins, 1994a; Richins and Dawson,
1992). Furthermore, combining the
nostalgic effects of age-related bonding
with those of individual differences in
nostalgia proneness, certain segments of
the population — as in the case of men
evaluating movie actresses or female
fashions — show a tendency towards a
nostalgic shift in which consumers with
higher levels of nostalgia proneness
experience a chronologically earlier agerelated preference peak (Holbrook and Schindler, 1991, 1994; Schindler and
Holbrook, 1993).
Other consumer researchers have
investigated similar nostalgia-related
topics. For example, Holak and Havlena
(1992) explored nostalgic themes from
informants’ descriptions of
consumption experiences (cf. Holbrook
and Hirschman, 1982) and from
informant-constructed pictorial collages
(Havlena and Holak, 1996) and
measured some of the negative as well
as the positive feelings involved (Holak
and Havlena, 1998). Hirsch (1992)

documented the role of smell-induced
nostalgia. Stern (1992) analysed
nostalgic elements in advertising, while
Baker and Kennedy (1994) showed that
liking for an advertisement is positively
associated with the arousal of nostalgic
feelings. Rentz and Reynolds (1991)
investigated the time-related
preferences of age cohorts. Rindfleisch
et al. (2000) showed a negative relation
of nostalgia proneness to materialism
(cf. Richins, 1994a; Richins and Dawson,
1992) but found weak predictive
validity for the former in the case of
automobile preferences.
The phenomena just described have
attracted considerable attention from
writers, journalists and consumer or
marketing researchers. As already
mentioned, various survey- and textbased studies have documented a reverence for the past that appears to
characterise the emergent episteme;
however, with rare exceptions (Havlena
and Holak, 1996; Holak and Havlena,
1992; Holbrook, 1993b), an empirical
foundation has been lacking based on
more probing interpretive or qualitative
research intended to capture the
experiential essence of nostalgia.
Previous work has successfully related
memorability or preference to
chronologically-driven critical periods
or to personality-based individual
differences found in large samples of
respondents. But, thus far, such studies
have failed to examine the everyday
emotions or mundane activities in
which such nostalgic phenomena are
embedded. To help close this gap in
understanding, the present paper
reports an exploratory study directed
towards probing these neglected aspects
of nostalgic bonding and thereby aimed
at clarifying the role of nostalgia in the
consumption experience. Specifically,
the authors apply a collective approach
to subjective personal introspection
(aided by the use of stereographic
photographs that do not appear in the

Journal of Consumer Behaviour Vol. 3, 2, 107–127 #Henry Stewart Publications 1479-1838


Morris B. Holbrook and Robert M. Schindler

present report) to draw inferences
concerning the key types of nostalgic
experience. Although not envisioned as
a test of theory in the present study,
these categories may prove useful as a
conceptual basis for future nostalgiafocused research and may suggest directions for marketing applications.

General approach
The general approach pursued here
draws primarily on the method of
subjective personal introspection (SPI)
— as developed by Holbrook (1995; see
also Gould, 1991; Holbrook, 1986, 1987,
1988) — with obvious connections to
aspects of the phenomenological or
existential focus on lived experience
(Thompson et al., 1989, 1990), the
ethnographic reliance on in-depth
interviews (Belk, 1991; McCracken,
1988) and the photographic collection of
visual documentation (Belk et al., 1988;
Heisley and Levy, 1991; Holbrook, 1987;
Rook, 1991; Wallendorf and Arnould,
1988; Wallendorf and Belk, 1987).
Similar methods have characterised
basic disciplinary work in cultural
anthropology (Bateson and Mead, 1942;
Collier, 1967; Collier and Collier, 1986),
visual sociology (Becker, 1986, 1995;
Chaplin, 1994; Gold, 1995; Harper, 1988)
or other social sciences (Wagner, 1979;
Ziller, 1990) and have been widely
adopted by consumer and marketing
researchers for the purposes of studying
retail environments (Heisley et al., 1991),
homeless people (Hill and Stamey,
1990), pet consumption (Holbrook, 1996,
1997a; Holbrook et al., 2001), fan clubs
(O’Guinn, 1991), marginal subcultures
(Penaloza, 1994), everyday living
experiences (Holbrook, 1998b; Holbrook
and Kuwahara, 1998), special interest
groups such as those involved with
motorcycles (Schouten and
McAlexander, 1995), product meanings
(Zaltman, 1997; Zaltman and Higie,
1993) and so on (for reviews, see
Holbrook, 1995, 1997c, 1997d, 1998a,


1998c, 1998d; Holbrook and Kuwahara,
Methods based on SPI have inspired
both detractors (eg Wallendorf and
Brucks, 1993) and defenders (eg Gould,
1995). Without repeating the details of
this debate, as justification for adopting
SPI in the present context, the authors
subscribe to the treatise-length
arguments offered in the extensive
review by Holbrook (1995).
In the present study, MBA students
were asked to collect brief introspective
vignettes from two non-MBA-student
informants concerning their feelings
about some favourite object from the
past and to document this information
by means of stereographic photographs
of the two informants posing with the
objects selected.
Data were collected by students in two
MBA classes at a large eastern graduate
school of business. Each student was
asked to contact two non-MBA students
of his or her acquaintance who differed
as much as possible in age (excluding
children) and who would be willing to
participate in a brief interview
concerning a special affection towards
some object from the past. This
sampling approach resulted in usable
responses from 51 informants. These
informants ranged in age from 20 to 90
years (median ¼ 33; mean ¼ 39.9).
Socioeconomic status was primarily
from lower- to upper-middle class, with
occupations including such diverse
areas as housewife, secretary, musician,
architect, doctor and lawyer. Ethnically,
75 per cent were white, with 12.5 per
cent African-American and 12.5 per cent
Asian. The gender split was equally
divided between men and women.
Introspective vignettes
In order to capture nostalgic experiences
associated with objects from the past,
each informant was asked to select
‘some product or other object that you
associate with your past and toward

Journal of Consumer Behaviour Vol. 3, 2, 107–127 #Henry Stewart Publications 1479-1838

Nostalgic bonding

which you feel a special fondness’, to
write a brief description of that product
or object and to compose a short
paragraph explaining ‘why or how you
came to feel special affection for the
product or object’. After this, the
informant was asked to provide a selfdescription ‘in terms of your age, gender, ethnic group, occupation,
socioeconomic status, country of origin,
and any other information that you
consider relevant to your liking for the
product or object of interest’. Salient
demographic and/or socioeconomic
informant characteristics will be
mentioned when presenting details
from the informants’ introspective
Collective essay
Notice that, as mentioned earlier, the
vignettes collected in this manner
represent SPIs of the type recently
advocated and justified at length in the
consumer-research literature (Holbrook,
1995; see also Gould, 1995; cf.
Wallendorf and Brucks, 1993). Here,
however, the SPI-based observations
come from a sample of 51 informants
rather than just the author(s), allowing
the authors here to create a collective
essay rather than a more idiosyncratic
autoethnography. The general approach
aimed at creating a collective essay has
been described and justified at length by
Holbrook and his colleagues (Holbrook
and Kuwahara, 1998; Holbrook et al.,
Stereographic photographs
Each informant was asked to pose with
the nostalgic object of choice while the
student volunteer took a couple of
photographs. An emphasis was placed
on posing ‘in a manner that best
conveys your feelings toward the
product or object of interest’ (cf.
Wallendorf and Arnould, 1988). For this
purpose, the student volunteers were
equipped with disposable stereographic
‘ImageTech 3D Magic’ cameras
produced and distributed by 3D Image

Technology, Inc. These three-lensed
cameras take triple-panel photographs
of a scene from three slightly different
angles. The two outermost exposures
can be printed side by side to form a
left–right stereo pair or converted to a
single anaglyph suitable for viewing
with red-and-blue glasses. Such
methods for three-dimensional
representations have been reviewed in
detail by Holbrook (1997c, 1997d, 1998a,
1998c; Holbrook and Kuwahara, 1999)
and have been illustrated for the case of
side-by-side stereo pairs in the context
of pet consumption (Holbrook, 1996,
1998a), urban living (Holbrook 1998b;
Holbrook and Kuwahara, 1998), and
phenomena that occur at the edge of
people’s ordinary experience (Holbrook,
1997b, 1997e). In addition to these printoriented examples, colour stereo pairs plus red-and-blue anaglyphs appear in
various easily accessible web
publications (Holbrook, 1997d;
Holbrook et al., 20...

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spibas spirit spiritu spis split sponsor spontan sport spous spread spring spring/fall spruce squar squeez stabil stage stainless stamey stand star start state statement station statur status stay steel steel-belt steinway step stephen stereo stereograph stereographi stereoscopi stern sternthal steuben steven stewart still still-valu stimuli stone stop store stori stove strategi strazar street stress strict string strip stroke strong student studi stuf sturdi style sub sub-zero subcultur subject subscrib subscript subway success suggest suitabl summer summer-camp superior supervis support sure surfac surpris surrealist surrog survey survey-bas surviv swap sweep swing symbol symbolis symphoni tabl tae tag take taken talent tan tangibl tap taper target task tast tasteori taught teach teacher tech techniqu technolog teddi teen teenag teeth tel televis tell ten tend tendenc tenni tent tentat tenuous term termin test text textbas textbook thanksgiv thanksgiving/christmas theatr themat theme thennew theori therapi therebi therefor thin thing think third thirst thompson though thought thousand three three-dimension three-lens three-year three-year-old threedimension thrill throw throwback thrust thus tie time time-manag time-rel timed timemanag timex tire today togeth toiletri token told took tool top topic touch tour tourist toward tower town toy toyland trade tradit traffic trailer trailerpark train trait transit trash traumat travel travel-rel treasur treat treatis treatise-length tri trial triathlon trick trip tripl triple-panel tropicana troubl truli truth tune turley turn turntabl tutori tv twice two type type-a typic ubiquit uk ultim under understand understood union uniqu unit univers unknown unobtrus unpleas untap upon upper upper-middl urban us usa usabl use usma usual ut vacat valentino valid valu vanilla vanilla-flavour vanilli varieti various vast ve vehicl veil velvet vener verg vers vestax via vibe vibraphon vicari vicin victim victori videotap view viewer 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