If you visited Target recently, you could be forgiven for thinking you had been whisked away to 1957. Through June 10, Target is selling Procter & Gamble brands Tide, Downy, and Bounce in limited-edition packaging inspired by P&G’s vintage print ads and mimicking the cutesy, cheery laundry detergent boxes of yore. Original-scent Liquid Tide, for instance, now comes in a bottle that claims it is “a washing miracle” and has a big, Saul Bassian bull’s-eye that’s either adorably retro or seizure-inducing. As the press release tells it, all the old-new packages are designed to hark back to “a bygone era when women wore dresses and high heels to carry their families” laundry in a wicker basket to their very first automatic washing machine…?
Nostalgia only works if there’s good reason to be nostalgic.
Uh, yay? P&G is obviously trying to tap into the nostalgia that any consumer product that’s more than 10 minutes old evokes, whether an Atari joystick or an old GE flip clock. In a recent report, brandchannel hypothesized that P&G was responding to consumers’ yen “for a return to that simple, uncomplicated, comfortable feeling often associated with no-frill, value-based products of the past” — a feeling that’s particularly pronounced in times of austerity.
That might be true. Except, of course, “simple, uncomplicated, comfortable” doesn’t exactly add up to “wearing dresses and high heels” to carry the laundry (unless you’re Caitlin Flanagan).
P&G probably assumes that we have enough ironic distance from the rigid gender roles of the mid-century to be able to laugh off its silly visual relics and maybe even find them charming — so charming, we decide to sink our dollars into Tide instead of something newer, hipper and fresher.
The thing is, nostalgia only works its magic as a marketing device if there’s something to be nostalgic for. Old-timey packaging flourishes in industries like makeup and cars because it exploits nostalgia for an image of a mythic sort of glamour. It works in film and TV, too. Consider Mad Men, which trades on our insatiable appetite for the booze and the wit and the sex (emphasis on the sex) of yesteryear. But who waxes nostalgic about washing someone else’s dirty underwear? Nothing can change how sucky that is, especially not a dress and heels.