This year’s Super Bowl ads are dominated by nostalgia

’90s pop icons like the Dude, the Backstreet Boys, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are here to sell beer, chips, and face cream.

Though the various brands that shell out millions of dollars for Super Bowl advertisements are not actively in cahoots, the big-budget end products typically circle around a theme, or at least a common mode of approaching the Big Game. This year, many brands are relying on nostalgia; in order to be understood at all, you need working knowledge of some old pop culture object. If you get the joke, you feel good, you buy stuff.

This theme is also a reboot. Adweek noticed the same predilection for nostalgia in last year’s slate of Super Bowl ads, which included Cindy Crawford rebooting her Pepsi ad from 1992 and Steven Tyler using a Kia as a time machine back to the 1970s.

But there’s a new twist in 2019: The nostalgia for something old is being combined with super-new pop culture objects. In Olay’s first Super Bowl commercial — the tagline of which is #KillerSkin — former horror movie star and ’90s teen icon Sarah Michelle Gellar is chased by an assassin in a murder mask. Five teasers and an official trailer went live on Olay North America’s YouTube channel in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, as did the full commercial. In it, Gellar struggles to unlock her iPhone to call for help because its facial recognition no longer recognizes her — she has been using Olay moisturizer for 28 days and looks like a different person.

For this ad to make sense to a viewer, the viewer must be familiar with Gellar’s reputation as a scream queen and some general conventions of slasher movies — two things that were crystallized decades ago. (Gellar starred in both I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 in 1997.) They must also understand the general quirkiness of Face ID, a feature introduced in November 2017 with the $900 iPhone X.

Doritos and Cheetos, which are both owned by Frito-Lay, which is owned by Pepsi, are working together to combine the flavor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and the general shape and texture of Doritos. The result will be Flamin’ Hot Doritos, which makes sense, and is the center of Frito-Lay’s Super Bowl ad. The campaign features the Backstreet Boys dancing to their 1999 hit “I Want It That Way” and Chance the Rapper explaining the new product. The new chip will be so densely covered in spicy flavors, he’ll need chopsticks to eat them, he says! Which is seemingly a reference to a photo of Oscar Isaac that became a meme in the spring of 2016.

The Backstreet Boys are an obvious nostalgia object, but Chance the Rapper also traffics heavily in nostalgia in the current era, churning out songs about roller rinks and church services. He used to rap and sing in a baby voice sparingly — it seems to be his standard mode now. But even the snarkier music he made as a teen referenced Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and other bodega snacks as a stand-in for childhood innocence, and so he’s an impeccable fit for this commercial.

Speaking to Adweek, Ready Set Rocket creative director Aaron Harvey said the goal of this style of advertising is to prove that a brand “has always been a part of the culture,” and create “a story where the brand can be the hero.”

One Stella Artois ad requires the viewer to be familiar with the original opening credits of Sex & the City, the heroine Carrie Bradshaw’s usual choice of cocktail, and a particular tic of her speech (“I couldn’t help but wonder”) that’s been a longstanding meme, revived in the past year because of Bradshaw’s participation with it on Instagram. In another, Carrie is joined by the Dude, the central character from the 1998 Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski. “Change up the usual,” the ad suggests, and also #PourItForward. (A reference to an idiom, best known as the title of a saccharine and depressing Kevin Spacey movie from 2000.)

Budweiser’s 2019 Super Bowl ad is a true feat of emotional manipulation, soliciting not just nostalgia for small-batch brewing and America’s amber waves of grain but also its own previous advertisements, by featuring its famous Clydesdale horses. It is also soundtracked by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” because the ad is about how Budweiser is brewed using wind power now. (“Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 1962 and borrows its underlying melody from an anti-slavery spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” Now it’s in a beer ad!)

After the 2008 recession, the New York Times charted a similar resurgence of nostalgia marketing under the headline “In Trying Times, Nostalgia Returns.” In it, a Cotton Inc. marketer said that “even teenage girls” claimed to remember and feel fondness for a cotton ad jingle that had been written and aired when they were infants. Maybe Budweiser’s next layer of self-reference will be in 20 years, when teens remember “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a beer jingle?

There are two major styles of nostalgia advertising — the kind that draws on personal, lived experience, and the kind that draws on abstract yearning for generalizations of the past. That the latter exists would explain, in part, why these advertisements expect 100 million Americans to share all the same reference points, spread across six decades of mass culture.

But marketing researchers at Washington State University studied both kinds of nostalgia-bait in 2012 and concluded that the personalized style was more effective, eliciting a better emotional response and participation from the audience. This might elucidate how we ended up with gobbledygook that references ’90s movies and an early aughts TV show, or a ’90s boy band and a rapper with more Twitter followers than the New England Patriots. Or a beer ad tugging at the heartstrings of Americans who remember folk music and those who only remember crying over those same horses in another winter. Smush enough stuff together and you’re bound to hit someone.