“Nostalgia, it’s delicate but potent,” said Mad Men’s Don Draper as he pitched a concept for Kodak slides. The iconic advertising executive explained why brands look back to the past in his famous speech, which aired in late 2007. It was just as Wall Street banks were starting to feel the effects of mortgage-backed securities.
Nostalgia, he said, is a Greek word that means “the pain from an old wound, it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone,” as he scrolled through pictures of his blissful family in the New York suburbs. “It takes us to a place where we ache to go again,” he said to a spellbound board room.
“This device,” he added, “isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine.”
In other words, nostalgia is a great selling point in difficult economic times. And McDonald’s has learned from Don Draper in 2022, taking generations in a time machine all the way back to the ‘90s.
When the fast food giant partnered with streetwear brand Cactus Plant Flea Market to sell adult Happy Meals last month, complete with a limited edition toy, the golden arches’ fanbase went wild. The iconic collectible was relaunched by the fast food chain shortly afterwards. Halloween PailsThe first time it was seen in 1986 was the. The strategy was intended to reel in Gen Z and millennials nostalgic for the McDonaldland of their childhoods, as well as older customers who enjoyed Happy Meals when they were first served 40-plus years ago, a McDonald’s USA spokesperson told Fortune.
These Happy Meals were a great way to bring back childhood memories, but the frenzy was a nightmare for workers who were overwhelmed with orders. “New adult Happy Meals are killing me,” a user posted on the McDonald’s employees subreddit.
“We ran out of boxes the first day we had them, ran out of toys the second, and on the third day we had to say the truck doesn’t come till tomorrow,” wrote another commenter Other subreddits. “It’s been…not fun.”
Some disgruntled customers who couldn’t get their hands on a meal took to eBayWhere adult Happy Meal toys could be found as much as $300,000 A pop.
It’s not the first time one of McDonalds’ throwback product rollouts was met with more excitement than anticipated. The revival of Pokémon Happy Meals A secondary market was also created in 2021 where trading cards could now be sold at high prices.
Clay Routledge, who is a psychologist who specializes on nostalgia, says that Happy Meals aren’t really about the Happy Meal. “The Happy Meal is an effort to get to something else,” he tells Fortune. “There is something you want in life, and a Happy Meal is a way to kind of grab onto it.”
This is the past. It tells a lot about where we are after years of economic uncertainty and pandemic-related chaos.
The pandemic evoked a wave nostalgic reactions
Nostalgia is a comforting feeling that comes with uncertainty and fear about the future. It’s a natural reaction to the past couple of years because nostalgia is a social emotion centered around memories that make us feel more connected, says Krystine Batcho, professor at Le Moyne College who researches nostalgia. Stress over a looming recession, rising inflation, residual COVID-19 anxiety has all created a prime opportunity for McDonald’s to unleash a wave of nostalgia-related offers and products that tapped into our desire for levity and a return to simpler times.
“Today with all the turmoil, there’s so much that we’re unsure of,” Batcho tells Fortune. “That is the perfect storm for nostalgia.”
All ages are susceptible to nostalgia, but developmental transitions like late adolescence and early adulthood can be significant triggers. Batcho points out that nostalgia can be triggered by the desire to recall times of security, such as when you trade your childhood for independence. Since nostalgia is so tightly wound to trust—something that has markedly decreased during the past couple years—we’re more likely to reminisce on our childhoods, which Batcho says is often the only time in life we fully trusted someone.
It’s no wonder, then, that Gen Z, millennials, or even retiring baby boomers went running for adult Happy Meals. “At the broad society level, when a culture is going through a big transition, you see consumer nostalgia really go up,” Routledge says.
The Happy Meal is missing the mark
Companies have been leaning heavily into nostalgia To sell more products during a pandemic, a deliberate move to speak to our exacerbated feelings toward pre-COVID time.
But getting the right marketing campaign can be tricky when it involves tugging on people’s emotions.
There’s also a danger of overplaying one’s hand and oversaturating the market: “It’s very complex because there’s a genius to getting the right mix,” Batcho explains, pointing to Subaru ads Popularity of the Top Gun Successful examples are the sequel.
Effective nostalgia isn’t about a concrete thing, but the emotion behind it. Batcho says that this was the problem with the adult Happy Meal. It targeted a particular audience and not the experience itself.
Acting on nostalgia can also lead to disappointment when we discover that the reality of it doesn’t recreate our childhood. This was the case with adult Happy Meals.
“I am a surgical resident and an adult,” tweeted Eric Pillado, “But yes, I did order a Happy Meal because it came in a Halloween bucket. And I’ve never been more content. And yes, I expressed my frustration that they were out of the pumpkin one.”
Such frustration destroys “nostalgic value,” Batcho says. An insatiable mind can make nostalgic purchases difficult. Customers who feel that the company is deliberately underselling them or not providing enough product might lose trust in the company. Thus, some customers may have viewed McDonald’s offering as a deliberate attempt to create a competitive market. As Batcho puts it, “Once you get angry, the nostalgia is gone.”
This craze was strangely a sign that there was optimism
The backlash to nostalgia is the idea that it’s a type of arrested development, feeding into the narrative that Happy Meal customers are avoiding adulthood. Routledge says that nostalgia is about trying to regain a childlike hope. The silliness of this craze could be a sign that brighter times are ahead.
Routledge also said that nostalgia can fuel people to move forward. It’s restorative, he says, adding that studies show that nostalgia makes people more optimistic, hopeful, and confident they can accomplish their goals.
Intergenerational bonding is also a benefit for adult Happy Meal enthusiasts. “It just makes the adult feel the good feelings they had as a kid,” Batcho says. “But now they can pass that on and take their child or their grandchildren for a Happy Meal.”
Although nostalgia is often more authentic than it used to be, the internet can sometimes provide more access to it. Routledge says that nostalgia is adaptable, but technologically-driven nostalgia can be less so. “A Happy Meal craze or something like that isn’t really going deep enough into what makes the nostalgia meaningful; it has more of a superficial element to it,” he says, adding that it’s like a fast solution to nostalgia. Even though it may be tied to a personal memory, “it’s not a very nutritious source of nostalgia.”
But, this surface-level nostalgia of purchasing the same plastic toy may help bridge the cultural gap that humans desire so much, he says.
Beyond connecting, it’s nice to be goofy. “It’s good that it shows that we remember that we can deal with the silly and the superficial and the just plain fun,” Batcho says. “That’s why childhood was so precious in the first place.”
Who would have thought that a waxy Grimace figurine could signify our hope for tomorrow? Or as Don Draper would say, a place where we know we’re loved.