Auctioning nostalgic brands.

Auctioning nostalgic brands.

Auctioning nostalgic brands.

What women really think.
Dec. 7 2010 10:47 AM

Looking for Meister Bräu

Auctioning nostalgic brands.

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There must be such a thing as imagined nostalgia—longing for something that seems viscerally familiar despite being wholly outside your experience. How else to explain the immediate emotional appeal of a can of now-defunct Lucky Whip, which claimed, in 1961 ad copy, to be "America's best-selling dessert topping"? You've never tasted it, but already you're creating the 20-year-old memory of a bowl of strawberry Jell-O made complete by the creamy white peak.

On Dec. 8, a fellow named Michael Reich, a former cosmetics manufacturer who's been collecting extinct brands in recent years, is putting about 170 names up for auction. In addition to foods, Reich is selling trademarks of long-gone magazines, household products, banks, and once-cutting-edge technologies. Putting aside briefly the question of how much these trademarks will fetch, it seems right and proper to observe a moment of silence for the appetites, interests, and fonts of yesteryear—yesteryear being, in some cases, just a few years ago. For instance, one of the brands for auction is Infoseek, the popular '90s search engine—now the vestigial trace of an online world so ancient as to be unrecognizable. On the Internet, nostalgia cycles around fast.

Many of the names in Reich's collection are quaint, literal, too cute by half, ghosts of an entirely different ad world. Names like Slenderella, Whistle Clean, Crustquick. Deodorants called Mum and Stopette. Another twee brand, Snow Crop, a line of frozen produce, was best known for its cans of frozen O.J., made from "tender little orange squeezings," as the ad copy used to say. In the logo, snow sits atop the thick, accessible, sans-serif letters of the brand name. "Antiquated," says communications consultant and brand strategist Bob Deutsch, looking at the logo. He says it reminds him of freezer burn.

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If these names and logos are so irrelevant, so outdated, fit only for eBay collectors and modern-history professors, why is Reich auctioning them off? Apparently, nostalgia is making a comeback. Marketers say we move so fast these days we're always looking over our shoulders. The notion that we long for old times is variously attributed to: 9/11, economic woes, and the desire among younger consumers for authenticity, whatever that is. (New York Times ad columnist Stuart Elliott has written five times in the past eight years about nostalgia making a comeback—apparently there is even nostalgia for this story line.)

Reich is banking on the idea that any brand that still exists in the public consciousness is worth reviving, either by bringing back the old product itself or introducing a new one blessed with an old and familiar name. "If you think that it's still on the market, that's probably the highest form of praise," he says when I express surprise that one of the brands he owns is no longer in production. His collection is filled with names that sound so familiar, you just assume they're still around in some form. Some, like Victrola, Shearson, Collier's magazine, and Meister Bräu beer, are immediately recognizable as relics from ye olde times. Others, like Sun 'n' Surf, The Linen Closet, and, yes, Lucky Whip, are either so anodyne or so homey or so similar to existing brands that they feel like something you should remember.

Is the feeling worth much without the product? Despite the hype, nostalgia is not necessarily easy to commodify. "It's a very challenging endeavor to revitalize an old brand," says Allen Adamson, the managing director of the New York office of branding and design firm Landor Associates. "There are very good reasons why these brands are no longer in the marketplace." (For instance, maybe the product's category shifted. Maybe the product itself was too niche.)

Ovaltine is one of the great success stories. Jeffrey Himmel, chairman of Himmel Group, revitalized the brand after acquiring rights to it in the '90s by tapping what he calls a "dormant warm and cozy feeling" associated with the brand, as well as an emerging communal need "to find comfort." It's not surprising, he says, that during times of upheaval, you "try to remember back to your childhood when life was easier and there was more comfort and security."

Apparently this is a kind of neurological trick. "One thing that happens when a person feels cozy, I would say there's a diminishment of cognitive facility," says Deutsch, a cognitive anthropologist who once worked with tribes in New Guinea and Amazonia and now studies how things like ritual and community influence how we shop. "You're not as critical. You're not as analytic," he says. "You just go with the feeling."

So in the interest of suspending critical judgment, we ask you to look through the following slides and see which one leaves you longing for the old days, even if you never knew them.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years.