By Taylor Crow
“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent… In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”– Don Draper, Mad Men
Recently, an actor named Steve Burns, who starred in the mostly animated educational children’s show Blue’s Clues, went viral with a feel-good video steeped in nostalgia. In the video, Steve wistfully tells his once-upon-a-time child audience that he hasn’t forgotten them in the years since his sudden 2002 departure from the show, which ran from 1996 to 2006.
If you’re not part of the millennial generation (or the parent or older sibling – or even a babysitter – of a millennial who watched Blue’s Clues), the video might not strike a chord with you. In it, Steve Burns says, “You remember how when we were younger, we used to run around and hang out with Blue and find clues and talk to Mr. Salt and freak out about the mail and do all the fun stuff? And then one day, I was like, ‘Oh, hey: guess what? Big news, I’m leaving.’ And then I got on a bus and I left and we didn’t see each other for like a really long time? Can we just talk about that? Great. Because I realize that was kind of abrupt.”
Burns also acknowledges that his now-grown audience is dealing with much bigger stressors today than helping Blue find her pawprint clues (and, yes: in case you didn’t know, the famous blue dog is a girl). Steve says, “I mean, we started out with clues and now – it’s what? Student loans and jobs and families? And some of it has been kind of hard, you know? I know you know.”
The video seems to be custom crafted to pull at the heartstrings of millennials, who yearn for the simple, worry-free days spent in front of the TV watching cartoons. While I’m sure the people behind the video had no idea just how virally the clip would spread (the original video tweet had over 38.4 million views and thousands of comments at the time of this writing), they surely knew that the video would tap in to one of marketing’s most powerful tools: nostalgia.
Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” Judging by the thousands of replies to the tweet of Steve’s return – dominated by GIFs showing intense sobbing – the sadness element of nostalgia is definitely there. But so is the happiness; many millennials have expressed that they feel comforted knowing that this character they’d packed away into their memories still remembers them. It’s like meeting an old friend and immediately feeling at home with them again, yet still ruminating over the lost years in between. Where did the time go?
Millennials are an audience that can be tricky to understand as a marketable demographic. We are the last generation that spent their childhood with analog devices sans high-speed Internet, thus many of us have a certain nostalgia for the “before.” But we’ve also lived through the days of MySpace and all the other social platforms that followed. It’s possible that this duality of experiences heightens our awareness when companies use nostalgia to get our attention.
So, what made the viral Steve video actually work and not be perceived as emotionally manipulative? Perhaps it was simply that the intention behind the video wasn’t to sell something but simply to connect with its audience. The video is branded with a graphic celebrating Blue’s Clues’ 25th anniversary, but nothing in the tweet is asking for viewers to spend money – or really do anything except enjoy the message. If there had been a link to a merchandise site selling Blue’s Clues apparel or something like that, I feel it would’ve cheapened (and maybe even ruined) the wholesome video. Millennials are not opposed to being sold to, but we are also attuned to sniffing out the intentions behind a marketing effort.
Another huge reason the Steve tweet was nearly universally loved is because it utilized video. There’s a real human connection with Steve Burns looking directly into the camera and addressing the audience. Philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously put it this way: “The medium is the message.” As marketers, we need to understand this, and it’s more important than ever. The medium you use to share your message is often the most critical component in your message. Video is human, intimate, and understandably popular. Steve’s message never would’ve reached viral success had it been delivered in one-dimensional text format.
It could be that Steve’s post simply came at the perfect time; as our world has changed irrevocably over the last year and a half, it’s a bittersweet relief that Steve and Blue are still there and rooting for us. And the memes that spawned from it all are pretty great, too.