Old is adland's new new as retro rules

McDonald's latest TV ad is set in the sunshiny Seventies, when housewives stayed home and made tea.

One sip from a giant cup of sweet iced tea in a modern-day McDonald's and suddenly ... a needle hits a scratchy record and our tea-swigging hero is transported back through the decades, to a sunshiny Seventies street where children play with a skipping rope and men in tight orange T-shirts play relaxed games of cards. When he gets home, his wife is transformed, too: every bit the housewife of old, she is waiting with a loving caress and a pitcher of tea. Ah, 30 years ago. Life was so much simpler then. I'm lovin' it.

This 30-second wallow in nostalgia is the latest McDonald's ad on US television. It is meant to raise a familiar smile, a warm glow inside, the perfect antidote to the sub-prime nightmares and job-shearing chaos of the modern world. And it is not only McDonald's that has gone down the retro route for the recession. Many ad executives say that, when it comes to bolstering consumer brands in these tough times, old is the new new.

"This is the advertising style you want to adopt in a crisis," says Bernardo Revilla, an editor at the post-production house Cosmo Street in New York. "It normally happens in times of economic trouble, when people reach for unifying values and marketers adopt an attitude of pulling together, of 'This is America' and at the end of the day we are going to emerge strong.

"When the economic difficulties give way to something better, then this style will no doubt give way to something with a bit more energy. But at the moment, people are too scared to be positive, too scared to portray an image of luxury and too afraid to take risks."

Maybe the good folk of Madison Avenue – the historic Manhattan home of the ad industry's best and brightest – have been watching too much Mad Men. The sepia-tinted show recreates the industry of the early Sixties. Its care and attention to period detail can be found in the McDonald's ad and its harking back to a prelapsarian era seems to be inspiring not just commercials but packaging and even product development, too.

This month, PepsiCo is going to reintroduce what it calls "throwback" products, versions of its Pepsi and Mountain Dew soft drinks that use natural sugar as a sweetener, and will be using retro designs on the cans. The limited-edition launch, which PepsiCo's marketing chief has said is "about yearning for the past", comes on the heels of a similar limited-time experiment by General Mills, maker of Cheerios and Cocoa Puffs, which adorned its cereal boxes with designs last seen in the Nineties, Eighties and even Sixties. What on earth is going on?

Brian Collins, who heads the Collins marketing agency in New York, says he is fascinated by this resurgence in retro packaging, and is already tapping into the trend in a project for a major consumer brand. "Music is always with us – the Eighties never go away. Television is always being recycled – The Brady Bunch is playing somewhere now. But when packaging disappears, it goes away for ever, and when it reappears, it is as if it were pulled out of a timewarp."

The industry learnt a lesson when PepsiCo-owned Tropicana, the orange juice drink, modernised its packaging at the start of the year, only to cause a consumer backlash and a plunge in sales. It reverted back within weeks.

"People just revolted," said Mr Collins. "'Can't someone just leave something alone! I'm really happy with my orange juice!' The world is undergoing so many seismic changes that people don't want their breakfast ritual to be changed."

Brands with a heritage are mining it for all it's worth. Coors has enjoyed a rebound in sales of its main-brand beer since making the can look like something out of the 1800s. Budweiser has long done it. This most American of beers has used its mascot, a Clydesdale draft horse, in ads for years and still uses labels that hark back to its origins over a century ago. During this year's Superbowl, where a 30- second slot during the commercial break can cost $3m, the most popular ads were a couple of heartwarmers tarring the Clydesdales, one in which a horse runs away to the circus to find his true love, another in which he copies a dog by fetching a tree trunk in the hope of getting human affection. Sappy stuff set in a simpler, rural America, but they came out top in poll after poll of people's favourite Superbowl ads this year.

Nostalgia is taking other forms, too. There has been a resurgence of jingles, a dubious artform once presumed dead. Chris Brown's retake of the "double your pleasure, double your fun" Wrigley's ditty last year was just the start. Firms from cotton clothing makers to insurance giants are exhuming jingles from the past. Slogans, too, are being recycled. Diet Coke is bringing back the "just for the taste of it" tagline from the Eighties.

Some marketers point to YouTube as the culprit for this, since the video-sharing site is stuffed full of ads from one's childhood. More industry execs point to the recession and the traumas of the past 18 months.

Once proud brands such as AIG and Lehman Brothers have been wrecked by too much newfangled product innovation, Mr Collins suggests, and marketers need to turn back clocks to save the brands that are left. "Trust has been shot to hell," he says. "In times that are shaky, you hold on to what you know and trust, things that make you feel that everything is going to be OK. Looking back, everything can seem happier, simpler, better, because the memory erases melancholy. If a brand can remind you that it has been around for generations, that continuity can give us confidence."

Not everyone on Madison Avenue believes retro is a trend with a future, however. Mark Wnek, head of Lowe in New York, is profoundly sceptical of its usefulness. "It's a weird thing to be thinking," he says. "The knee-jerk reaction to the recession is to talk up value, which is understandable. The powers that be have been telling us to keep spending like there's no tomorrow for the past 10 years, and suddenly we have done a handbrake turn and every single thing has a value message in it. But the problem with a value message is that the brand can't come back when things return to normal, because you have devalued the brand."

The real trend in advertising over the past decade or so, he says, is the search for "authenticity". Brands that try to hook themselves to a retro bandwagon could find themselves heading up a cul-de-sac.

"If you look at nostalgia in advertising from the point of view of authenticity – ads that say: we know you have known this product for years and years – then that might make sense, because it is based on a heritage that you can tap into and make current. Nostalgia that simply yearns for better times doesn't seem like a very big idea to me. Brands can't keep talking about how it used to be."

UK ADVERTISERS GO WITH THE NOSTALGIC LURE OF THE SEVENTIES

Retro is also back in fashion in the UK, where nostalgic advertising creatives also seem to have a hankering for the Seventies.

Recent converts include Richmond Sausages, which sells its bangers under the banner "the taste that takes you back" while EDF's Eco 20:20 advert has the tag "There's not much worth recycling from the 1970s" and features cult figures like the Green Cross Code Man, the pound note, the Six Million Dollar Man and glam rockers Mud.

In an earlier move towards nostalgia, Cadbury's was one of the first to revive 1980s style by relaunching the Wispa chocolate bar (right) apparently because of demand fed by Facebook and YouTube.

This was followed by Walker's Crisps decision to bring back those lurid corn snacks, Monster Munch. It even launched a campaign to find the original furry puppets used in the first TV ads.

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