August 10, 2009
Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Amy Jacques
The following article appears in the August issue of PR Tactics.
Peace signs. Mud people. Psychedelic music. Bohemian clothing. Flower power.
These terms continue to symbolize more than a three-day festival as this August marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which featured the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Santana and Jefferson Airplane. Rather, the words evoke a sense of nostalgia for the larger idea of “Woodstock Nation.”
“It was the moment that the counterculture was branded in marketing terms,” says longtime Rolling Stone contributor and music critic Anthony DeCurtis. “The notion of Woodstock Nation indicated a demographic niche as much as anything else.”
Woodstock took place during a period of political, social and economic unrest for the United States. When reflecting on 1969, the dark reality of the times is called to mind, including the Vietnam War, the draft, civil rights challenges and protests.
Parallels can be drawn today with the current financial crisis, the economic downturn and the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that nostalgia for the past occurs when the underlying cause remains relevant in modern times — and can overshadow the problems of the day.
“Woodstock’s success was born from the widespread discontentment of that time and the notion that ‘the system’ was failing the populous,” says Patrick Schwerdtfeger, author of “Make Yourself Useful: Your Guide to the 21st Century” and founder of the Tactical Execution company. He notes that today’s economy has “left Americans with similar feelings, making the events of 1969 equally relevant in today’s world.”
Looking around, there is a plethora of Woodstock-related memorabilia surfacing. This summer marks the release of three Woodstock-related films including Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” at least 13 books, such as “The Road to Woodstock” written by festival co-founder Michael Lang (who is also working on a VH1/History Channel documentary) and numerous CD releases, re-releases and compilation discs by artists who played at the original festival. In addition, Warner Home Video will release a four-hour director’s cut of “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music.” And Rhino will put out a six-CD box set of Woodstock performances.
As if that’s not enough, there is a “Heroes of Woodstock” national tour and a special concert celebration on the site of the original festival at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in upstate New York, featuring some of the performers from 1969. The trademark event poster with the dove on a guitar neck has been repurposed numerous times, even as part of a clothing line that Target recently launched in conjunction with Woodstock. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a special exhibit honoring the 40th anniversary. And Woodstock.com plans to re-launch itself as a social networking site.
A large portion of advertising in the United States today uses the nostalgia appeal — and it is evident that the 1960s are popular right now, notes Dr. Michael Solomon, a marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. A financial ad features Dennis Hopper from “Easy Rider,” the tag line for “The Bachelorette” is the “summer of love,” Luvs diapers feature the VW Microbus, Volkswagen is juxtaposing its newer models with the classic Beetle and countless clothing lines are showcasing a return to bohemia with throwbacks to fringe, headbands and peace signs.
Several things are fueling this: the recession and looking at the past idealistically when times are tough, the election of Obama as the new president and a resurgence of idealism, the large number of baby boomers in the current population and young people’s acceptance of the branding of a culture — and embracing “the remix of old classics,” according to Solomon.
And this idea of remixing old classics is making a comeback in advertising and marketing, Stuart Elliott reported for The New York Times in April. To help ease consumers’ minds about the recession, marketers are trying to appeal to fond memories to help sell products.
“It’s about yearning for the past, a simpler time, even though the 1960s and 1970s were not simple,” Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer for sparkling beverages at the Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages unit of PepsiCo, told the Times. “They just seem simple, looking back.”
Vintage packaging, formulas, jingles and slogans are cropping up everywhere from McDonald’s to General Mills cereal boxes to Coca-Cola soft drinks. And hard times have often inspired a look back to happier moments. This is not a novel concept — World War II also experienced a nostalgia boom as seen with movies like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and songs like “Long Ago and Far Away,” Elliott adds.
But marketing nostalgia can also be dangerous as it is such a personal emotion. “Often-times the things that we find nostalgic are so unique and idiosyncratic that they need no packaging for the effect,” says musicologist and Syracuse University professor Theo Cateforis. “They speak to us directly. If one tries to force that emotional connection, then it can often seem manipulative.”
Cateforis goes on to explain that part of Woodstock’s impact on history is that it solidified the connection between the 1960s and protest music. “Woodstock forever stamped rock music as a genre whose authenticity could be measured by its social relevance,” he says.
However, academics, music and culture critics and PR and marketing professionals remain divided regarding the wisdom of the branding and re-branding of Woodstock.
“I don’t think Woodstock was ever about celebrity, and it’s certainly not about that now, even with all of the anniversary products/projects being marketed to cash in on it one more time,” says Jeff Tamarkin who has been writing about music for more than 25 years and is currently the associate editor of JazzTimes. “As so many have pointed out, it’s always been about the event itself, the notion of half a million people coming together and expressing themselves as one.”
And the infamous “Dean of Rock Critics” Robert Christgau was not interested in acknowledging the anniversary and declined to comment to Tactics on the topic altogether.
“People who are likely to pay for Woodstock memorabilia are doing so because they see a lack in today’s rock music, as well as in the culture surrounding the music,” Cateforis adds. “Part of the nostalgia is rooted in the mythical belief that rock at that time was akin to folk music, which is to say that it was impervious to market forces, and sprung from the voices of a youth generation.”
Regardless, it is clear that Woodstock still resonates with the population. Whether it’s the nostalgia appeal, an appreciation for the music of that generation or just an interest in history, people who were at the original festival and those who may be learning about it for the first time feel strongly about Woodstock in one way or another — and the brand still holds weight after many years.
“I wasn’t at Woodstock. So for me, as for most people, my experience of the event is mediated almost entirely through the movie, which I still find thrilling,” says rock scribe Richard Gehr, a former editor at Spin magazine and regular contributor to The Village Voice. “The persistent re-branding of the event, however, is bothersome. Rather than consider dubious parallels between 1969 and 2009, I’d prefer [the promoters] to simply let it be, as it were, so people can enjoy that remarkable event in all its historical specificity.”
Amy Jacques is the associate editor of Tactics. She holds a master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.