What sells better — the future or the past?

Is this the future or the past?

Here’s what I am pondering today.  In terms of connecting with a consumer’s emotions, what works better — pointing to the future or the past?

I’m 48 (albeit a 10 year old boy trapped in man’s body) which puts me a little behind the line in terms of baby boomers and a little ahead of the curve for Gen X.  But I’ve noticed over the past several years that many advertisers are reaching back into my childhood for inspiration.

The music of my youth, classic toys like slinkys and key moments in my life’s history seem to crop up in TV spots, print ads and headline references.

On the flip side, many advertisements promise us a better future, thanks to their product or service.  From the his and her outdoor tubs thanks to Cialis or the joy of an engagement accepted via Kay’s Jewelers — we do love the pictures they paint.

Do we react more strongly to memories of days gone by or the promises of days not yet experienced?  And which makes us pull out our wallets?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.  Which do you react to more strongly?

I got thinking about this idea after reading Harry Beckwith’s most recent post over at Psychology Today. (read it here) about progress.  I began to wonder if it was the emotion of the future’s promise or the actual realization that mattered most to us.

Speaking of Harry — I have 2 copies of his new book Unthinking  that I highly recommended last week to give away.  I’ll do a random drawing among the comments on this post… so don’t be shy, weigh in.

The past or the future — which one drives right to the wallet and why?

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48 comments on “What sells better — the future or the past?

  1. Pierre says:

    I am no expert in psychology and human behaviour, but here are my thoughts on this matter:

    It is normal behaviour to remember only the positive things from our past. Advertisers use these triggers to evoke a positive emotion, which is not hard to do at all, and very effective.

    The future refers to something, or some product yet to come. Very often difficult to imagine, but it creates hope. The hope people have for the future, for the days when everything will be better, has been exploited negatively by people in power. Politicians make promises of a better future that will never see the light of day. Monopolistic organisations create illusions of products that appear bigger than it really is on launch-day. There is a negative, almost rebellious tendency towards promises related to things that may come.

    However, when the future comes it changes the picture. People will file the promise that tomorrow brings somewhere in the back of their minds. They will hope for it to happen, but the buzz happens when this future product is on the table where you can touch it, feel it, taste it…

    I would have to say that it is the actual realization that matters most. It creates confidence and positive emotional response that opens the doors to experience, compare and build trust. Before that you will be faced with mixed emotions of doubt and scepticism.

    After all… wouldn’t political parties, product concepts, and service delivery “sell” better if they delivered on the promises of making things easier, better, faster and more efficient… and actually made tomorrow better?

    1. Pierre,

      Interesting thoughts, especially on the issue of real versus the allure or promises not yet delivered upon.

      On the one hand, I agree with you. Who wouldn’t prefer to have a promise fulfilled. But if the fulfillment somehow does not meet the expectations, than perhaps the illusion of the promise is more appealing?

      You raise many good questions — thanks for getting my brain cooking!


  2. Karin H says:

    How about the actual realisation of past fond memories in a modern set up, making ones life easier?

    It’s just that many of our clients comment on the fond memories they have of School halls, grandma’s house, village halls with original wooden floors and the smell of wax, when we present them with modern versions (still real wood but on a modern construction) which are easier to maintain, but still give them “the smell” of the past 😉

    So, why not combine both past emotions with future promises?

    Karin H. (Keep It Simple Sweetheart, specially in business)

    1. Karin,

      Hmm, a nice combination. Added conveniences but the “meaning” from something in the past.

      I’m going to start watching for that blend of messages. I’ll bet they’re all over the place!

      You are a very smart marketer, my friend!


  3. I think it ties into the recession. The future’s scary, and involves living under a bridge.

    The past though, that’s pure sepia-tinted nostalgia…

    I know which I’d rather buy.

    1. Andy,

      Several people have thought the economic conditions (or wartime versus peace time) would greatly influence which method was more impactful.

      So….following your theory, if times were rosy, everyone had $ in their pocket, unemployment was low etc. — would you expect the future looking ads to trigger more buying?


  4. Steve says:

    For me, an effective advertisement would use both the past and the future.

    Ads that contain music or images from my past grab my attention. But, that doesn’t necessarily make me pull out my wallet to buy something. However, once the advertisement has my attention, the promise of a better future will make me think about spending money.

    That’s what works for me!

    1. Steve,

      No doubt the ad creators are using emotional triggers like music to get our attention. But you make a valid point — it doesn’t have to be an either or. Karin’s example reminded us of that as well.

      So for you — the buying trigger is a future focused message — but to deliver that message, they have to capture your attention using the good old days.

      Lots of food for thought — thanks for jumping into the conversation!


  5. I am biased towards the future. I drill into a product, service, book or paper looking for kernels of, “how will this improve or make my life easier, add wisdom or make me smarter?”

    If I were trying to sell something, I’d tie it to the past. I just think most people do not embrace change. And by giving them a toehold onto the familiar, they are better braced to move forward with your stuff.

    1. Dave,

      We’re fascinating creatures, aren’t we? When you talk about what you’re looking for — that is the brain part of the buy. But when you talk about connecting to the past, that’s the heart part.

      And there lies the difference. We buy everything based on some sort of emotional response. So maybe you’re right on the link to the past.


  6. Drew, I believe it all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

    Take the use of music for example.

    I am 3 years older than you.

    The music I relate to most are the tunes from the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. TV shows such as CSI that use music from that era reinforce to me that this is a show that I can relate to.

    When Bob Dylan tunes serve as background music for car commercials, it gets my attention too.

    But not everything from the past is worthy of my attention. No, I don’t want a slinky or roller skates. I don’t want a telephone that hangs on the wall with a cord either.

    With the rapidly changing technology, I am less likely to fork over a few hundred on something that will be functionally obsolete. My laptop is now in it’s fourth year, my cell phone is 7 months old and I’m not planning on upgrading either or buying an iPad.

    Use hooks from my past to reassure me about the future.

    1. Scott,

      I hear you. Elements that trigger an emotional response work. But just holding up things from your past doesn’t necessarily have the same effect.

      I noticed a funny thing when my daughter was little. My mom immediately went out and bought her all the toys I’d played with as a toddler. The telephone on wheels, lincoln logs, etc.

      So for her, nostalgia not only triggered her memories but she went out and bought the memories again!


      1. My first grandson will be born this summer, I wonder if I’ll do the same things your Mom did..

        1. Scott,

          Congrats on the upcoming grandchild! How exciting is that? Do you leave nearby so you can start babysitting?


          1. She’s about 200 miles away, so not on a regular basis…

            Thanks for being such a dedicated blogger, Drew..

    2. Karin H says:

      “Use hooks from my past to reassure me about the future.”

      Now that’s what I call a hook! Love the sentence – mind if you start contemplating how to use this in our marketing? 😉

      Karin H

      1. Karin H says:

        Duh, early morning buttery fingers!

        should read: mind if I start contemplating!

        1. By all means — use it well!


  7. Penny says:

    Good day Drew,
    The past tugs at the heart and purse strings. I think the future plays in the delivery channel. Our college kids today are all about the Retro era but communicate only electronically.

    Have to agree with Karin, simple is good!


    1. Hi Penny —

      Thanks for jumping in! You bring in a new element to the conversation. The message can be set in the past but how we deliver the message is all about the technology/future.

      I hadn’t broken it down in that way but that’s an intriguing way to look at it.


  8. Hi, Drew!

    I think it probably depends on what we’re selling and the target audience we’re attempting to reach. Generally speaking, I’d expect the younger (think, digital native) set to be more into the future and the way evolving technology will enhance it. So, I’d think appealing to this group’s forward-looking tendencies would yield better marketing results.

    On the other hand, older people (a term which, of course, is relative) might generally tend to respond better to a more nostalgic approach. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, since many digital immigrants are also technology-oriented and future-focused.

    As for the “in-betweeners” like yourself, they could really go either way — or perhaps even both ways at different times and with different product categories.

    Certainly when marketing technology-related products or services, one would expect a more future-focused approach to succeed best, since most people who are in the market for technology (no matter what their age) are seeking the latest in convenience, speed, connectivity, and access — which translate to an entry into the fast-paced world of the future.

    1. Jeanne,

      God bless you for calling me an in-betweener! I am sure you’re right — this isn’t a one size fits all sort of question. Even within the same consumer, there are different buying triggers, depending on the product or product category.

      What will be interesting to me is this: Will those digital natives ever turn nostalgic? What do you think?


      1. Thanks, Drew!

        It’s always nice to receive a blessing! 😉

        Good question whether today’s digital natives will ever turn nostalgic. I tend to believe that one day — perhaps when they’re much older — they will.

        Though, now that I think about it, even today I think we see a bit of nostalgia with many young people lamenting the changes made to some of the later versions of their favorite video games and others preferring the older incarnations of the iPod.

        Case in point: my 22-year-old-son, who recently bought a refurbished (5th generation) iPod Nano because he preferred it to the later [6th gen] Nano. Very smart of Apple to keep these models available as long as they can — even if only in factory refurbished models! Customers are buying them!

        1. Jeanne,

          Do you think your son prefers the older generation iPod for nostalgic reasons or functional ones?


          1. Definitely functional ones. Yet, I always think there must be a bit of nostalgia lurking somewhere beneath the surface, in the sense of “They just don’t make ’em like they used to!” 😉

  9. A few more thoughts on this fascinating topic:

    One product category where even today’s young people focus on the past is vintage clothing and vintage jewelry, which, again, demonstrates that not only age but also product type determine the most effective marketing approach.

    I believe it takes a savvy marketer to know when to focus on which approach and even how best to use combined approaches for successful marketing (aka, how much of each aspect of the young person’s psychological makeup to target to strike the right balance for a successful ad campaign).

    For example, the message that yesterday’s fashions are not only “in” today but are also the look of the future combine a yearning for the beauty of an earlier time with an up-to-the-minute chic that would be hard for this demographic to resist. Any marketer who manages to successfully combine past and future in this way is sure to reach this market segment.

    1. Jeanne,

      Good point — but one twist to that thinking. The kids don’t want clothes that look vintage — they actually want vintage clothes. My daughter and her friends hit the GoodWill and other places like that — looking for genuinely old clothes.

      So show them a new shirt that looks like a 70s style and they are much less interested. But show them a shirt made in the 70s and they’re all over it!


      1. Right you are, Drew!

        Many young people do find these vintage items at Goodwill and other thrift stores. (Have you noticed that thrift store prices have risen incredibly in the past several years?)

        Yet, there are also quite a few higher-end vintage clothing stores that have capitalized on the vintage clothing craze by charging ridiculously high prices for clothes that used to be called “second-hand.” (Marketing has so much to do with perception — not to mention demand!)

        It’s true, of course, that most mainstream businesses would probably not benefit from the vintage clothing craze, since they don’t sell used products — but many of the businesses that do are earning a pretty penny!

        Wondering, though, if there isn’t a pretty good market for vintage jewelry replicas. Based on my visits to online jewelry sites, I have a feeling there probably is — particularly among people who don’t want to spend tons of money on the real thing. We all know that, provided there’s a market for them, selling replicas in quantity would yield a tidy profit.

        1. Jeanne,

          Sounds like you might have a potential new business!

          I know that one of the most popular dress sites that my teenaged daughter and her friends frequent has a ton of replica vintage dresses. They love the styles and the reasonable prices!


          1. If I were interested in that line of work, I might just go for it! 😉 I’m sure there’s a market for replicas!

  10. Tim True says:


    Great question. My thoughts run parallel to Jeanne’s. I think most of us react to both depending on the subject/product. The emotional trigger is depended on the audience and the desired outcome.

    1. Tim,

      No doubt that’s the case. Jeanne and some of the other commenters offer up some great examples of both sides winning the sale.

      Do you think it’s more product driven or audience driven?


  11. Hi Drew,

    I’m going with the future. Because the past (nostalgia or sentimentality or whatever) is only as good as it ties us to an action we have yet to take.

    This is a timely question, because I’m working on a branding piece right now for an organization (that is launching a re-brand April 1), that has a terrific story to tell about their roots. But the conclusion I’ve come to is that the past tells where they’ve come from and points to the direction they’re headed. But what matters most is the story they have yet to write.

    And I this ultimately holds true for almost any brand. After all, even Pez can’t sell to aging Baby Boomers forever.

    1. Daria,

      I think you are right in terms of your client. While their past may be interesting to me and set the stage for their brand — ultimately I want to know what their product/service can do for me.

      So it’s a nice foundation — but it’s not enough to make me buy something.

      Which of course is an element we hadn’t throw into the mix until now. Is it consumer based nostalgia or from the company’s perspective that gets our attention?


  12. Jeanne Male says:

    Fascinating topic, Drew. I think it’s a matter of the product and positioning. The past taps positive emotion, nostalgia and safety which may be helpful for promoting something that isn’t yet “tried and true”. The future taps hope, being the first to…and potential. As a long-standing teacher and student of behavioral styles I’m constantly observing how styles influence wants-driven behavior and response to change. e.g.: Control and Charisma styles are early adopters and generally respond to vision or future messaging while Correct and Carings generally don’t want to upset the applecart and seek data and security which may make past messaging or historical references resonate.

    1. Jeanne,

      Awesome — you just added yet another wrinkle to the discussion. Does it matter (and I am reading you to say it does) what kind of person we’re talking about?

      Are some personality types/behavioral styles more likely to be swayed by one or the other? Of course — it makes perfect sense.

      Your examples should remind all of us of the importance of creating personas ( http://www.mclellanmarketing.com/2011/01/personas.html ) to narrow our target so we can really talk right into their hearts.


  13. Jeanne Male says:

    P.S. The behavioral style preferences are subject to many variables. Then again, so are the generalizations of nostalgia being positive – case in point, the robot gives me the heebie geebies thanks to a childhood nightmare. 🙂

    1. Jeanne,

      Ha! So sorry for causing the heebie jeebies!


  14. Hi Drew,
    I think nostalgia/retro/the past is “tangible” – we can touch & feel those memories, they are real. The future can offer excitement for some, dread for others – it can be seen as the unknown/uncertain/out of reach.
    It is down to a person’s preference I guess.

    1. David,

      The known and the unknown. Very true. That gets back to what Pierre pondered — is it the actual fulfillment of the promise or the promise of the promise that we’re drawn to?

      What do you think?


      1. Personally, I’m drawn to “the fulfillment” of what is being offered Drew, something that I can grab hold of. Otherwise promises become just promises…….empty words.

        1. David,

          I think your reaction is probably much more common today — as people grow weary of marketing hype and empty promises.


  15. Genny says:

    Interesting topic!

    For me, I think it would have to be the past. Many people spend time thinking about and obsessing over their past, remembering the good old days when everything seemed to run so smoothly (basically, before backaches and the economy crash).

    I don’t exactly have these problems yet because I am still quite young, but not a day goes by where I don’t think, man, wasn’t that fun? about some sort of event, adventure, or opportunity the past had presented me with.
    Everybody seems to think that the before was better than the now, and it’s not until they reach the future that they realized how good of a time they’d been having in the “now”.

    Perhaps it is not this way for people with a poor upbringing, however? If someone experienced problems in their childhood or adolescence, maybe they are more likely to appeal to the ads about the future – they will appeal to idea of the “better days to come”, the hope, where they may not suffer in the way they do now, whichever way that is. Just a thought.

    Ah, I could digress on this for ages! But I’ll leave it at that 🙂

    1. Genny,

      Nice! After 20 some comments, you still bring a new twist to the conversation. Personal economic status.

      No doubt you are correct — if someone grew up poor, they would react very differently to nostalgia than someone who grew up in the middle class.

      Same thing is probably true for the consumer’s current economic status. If I’ve been unemployed for several months — I many not be looking too kindly at the future. I may be very wistful about the past.

      Great thoughts — thanks for adding them!


  16. Shirley says:

    LOL as they say ~ I am 48 also and just assumed the emergence of so many ads with tunes ‘from my era’ was related to the expiration of copyrights 😉

    1. Shirley,

      LOL! I hadn’t even thought of that but of course, that could be a factor!

      Yikes — we’re old enough to have our copyrights expired!


  17. Drew,
    I think we advertisers try to put the prospective customer in a state of mind of happiness and good feelings. Many times there are childhood aspects that take us there. Perhaps even suggesting that the future can be like those good times. I know for me, my attention is always drawn to fun things from my childhood.

    Nice post….


  18. Your audience determines what is more appealing. It could be along demographic lines: younger people may prefer a bright future promise, older audiences a reminder of a good past. Success could also depend on the audience’s balance of fear and hope, or even their level of optimism. Excellent article, thanks for getting a great discussion started.

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