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In Future AR Tech, Expect More Blasts from the Past

New research suggests that for augmented reality marketing, 'nostalgia' is the key to inspiring consumer action.


When it comes time to rehash the most memorable Super Bowl ads, you can count on a tearjerker to take the cake. Last Sunday, pulled the requisite heartstrings with a spare, no-frills spot. It featured an elderly man asking Google Assistant to help him remember characteristics of his late wife Loretta: How she “loved scallops,” used to "hum showtunes" and “snort when she laughed.” Photos of the couple, taken over the decades of their lives together, flashed across the screen.

Morten Falch Sortland | Getty Images

It goes without saying that — both personal and cultural — is one of our time’s most potent forces. and presidential campaigns alike have commanded it to staggering effect. But there are few places where tapping into the comforts of yesterday feels more paradoxical than in the advertisement of futuristic tech.

I thought about this when I came across a new study in the Journal of Retail and Consumer Services called, “Nostalgia beats the wow-effect: Inspiration, awe and meaningful associations in .” The market for augmented reality (AR), which enables users to see digital images superimposed on their real world surroundings (think, ’s Pokémon Go game) is expected to “grow by 31% annually to more than 120 million users in the U.S. by 2021.” But AR and its marketing possibilities are still nascent, so researchers are keen on better understanding how the technology impacts users. In retail, the most successful AR ventures have included a Macy’s app that lets customers try on makeup to find their perfect shade, and an app that shows customers how pieces of furniture would look in their homes before ordering online. The language learning app Mondly or the science class app Froggipedia — which enables users to learn about, interact with and dissect frogs — are tapping into AR’s educational potential. And outside of retail, gaming and education, AR is expected to have big implications in medicine and the military. 

Related: How Augmented Reality Will Shape the Future of Ecommerce

Nostalgia enables the jump between initial inspiration and action

But the authors of “Nostalgia beats the wow-effect” were focused on AR’s marketing potential. Namely, they wanted to understand what role AR could play in the process of inspiration. The process of inspiration is somewhat mysterious, since it’s clear that a person can be psychologically inspired by something they encounter, but not moved to take any real action. So identifying motivational factors that take someone from “inspired by” to “inspired to” is of great interest to researchers of all kinds — and particularly those trying to figure out what gets a customer from “huh, that’s cool,” to, “I’m going to buy that.”

The authors observed participants who were psychologically inspired by a novel experience (in this case, using the Lego Playground AR App), and then went on to state their for behavioral action (a desire to play with Legos in the real world). The authors hypothesized that awe, or the “wow-effect” triggered by interacting with a new technology, would be the biggest motivator for behavioral action. But to their surprise, they found little evidence of this. Instead, they observed that “nostalgia,” or fond memories of the from years past, was the key motivator for people who said that they enjoyed playing with Legos on the app, and wanted to continue doing so in real life. 

Chris Hinsch, one of the researchers of the study and a marketing professor at Grand Valley State University, says that because AR is “new enough that it catches the eye... the ‘wow-effect’ might actually get the process [of inspiration] started. But then the nostalgia is actually the driving force between the psychological inspiration, or being inspired ‘by’ something, to the physical or the motivational inspiration to actually ‘do’ something.”

Related: How Augmented Reality Can Help You Achieve Your Fitness Goals

Expect a lot of flashbacks from legacy brands

The paper’s authors conclude that their findings on the motivational value of nostalgia “will allow legacy brands to leverage past relationships to create stronger and more meaningful inspiration episodes. Marketing practitioners might utilize the findings of this by using retro-styling to increase levels of nostalgia to drive consumer . This technique should be especially successful when nostalgia is generated by brand-related and brand-relevant stimuli (as in the current research in the form of the Lego Playgrounds AR app), rather than through brand-independent stimuli. Practitioners might also leverage nostalgia by cobranding with dormant or defunct legacy brands that have the potential to translate psychological inspiration to a behavioral form.”

In a sense, nostalgia and AR are the perfect pair, since nostalgia tends to offer a fairly “augmented,” add-or-subtract view of history. As Hinsch says, “We tend to forget the bad things from the past and remember the good over long time horizons.” It’s not hard to imagine legacy brands like Coca-Cola, Ford or Budweiser building out factory tours, creating a rose-colored augmented reality tale of production over the past century. One could see Netflix partnering with a company like Blockbuster (whom Netflix put out of business) to create some kind of interactive 90s-themed game — or Delta partnering with a ghost brand like Pan Am, symbolic of air travel’s golden era, to create an augmented reality experience of long gone glamour.  

In consumer choices, what seems practical is usually emotional

Still, I can’t help wondering, will nostalgia truly play such an outsize role in AR’s marketing future? In the retail sphere, popular apps like Ikea’s or Macy’s offer a tangible utility. So I ask Hinsch about this. He says that yes, truly useful features could be powerful mediators between “inspired by” and “inspired to” behavior, but most of the decisions we make as a result of those functions (which really amount to shopping) are still driven by emotion. “Your makeup, your clothes, the way you decorate your home, these are all deeply aesthetic and personal things,” Hinsch says. “They’re more emotional than cognitive decisions. There’s no hard data for why you like something or you don’t. So I would expect nostalgia to strongly influence these kinds of things.”

Hinsch says he certainly sees the irony of futuristic technology leaning on the analog past to inspire us. But as the digital age accelerates into the unknown, he thinks nostalgia will only take up more space in our cultural consciousness. “The paradox is clear, but much of life is paradoxical,” he says. “I expect nostalgia to be even more important moving forward. I think cultural practices and rituals have always played off of nostalgia to some degree. And as things speed up and change happens faster and faster, nostalgia may be seen as a reorienting or steadying force. It seems odd, but new tech like AR can be a way to deliver this.”

Related: Tim Cook Subtly Dinged Mark Zuckerburg by Saying Augmented ...

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