Pathmatics Blog

Building a Time Machine with Digital Advertising

August 09 2021 by Sarah Fleishman

Engaging customers through nostalgia in advertising is nothing new. While many thought the explicit nostalgia resurgence in recent years as a fad that would eventually go the way of Millennial Pink, the COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that this trend is not going anywhere anytime soon. Throughout a physically, emotionally, and mentally harrowing 2020, consumers needed familiar comforts more than ever to cope with the daily traumas of the pandemic. 

At Pathmatics, we’ve seen the nostalgia wave transcend fashion and culture to take over digital ads, particularly within entertainment with streaming platforms in 2021. As Hollywood attempts to come up with new ideas, studio execs are looking to our not-so-distant past for new content. Here’s how HBO Max, Paramount+, and Disney Plus are promoting their nostalgic titles to win over consumers’ hearts.


I’ll Be There for You

Previously we looked at HBO Max as one of the top digital ad spenders for early 2021 invoking nostalgia in their advertising. This year, the streaming service struck sentimental gold with digital ads featuring its reboots of fan-favorite titles like Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Gossip Girl. HBO Max invested primarily in Facebook with the platform making up 63%($71M) of the company’s overall strategy.

From mid-May to June, HBO Max’s biggest spend on a creative was $414K on a Facebook ad promoting the highly anticipated Friends reunion special. The streaming platform continued to devote its budget to the special following its debut, with three of the top 10 creatives featuring Friends, totaling an investment of almost $925K in a month. 

HBO Max’s biggest investment of the summer was for the highly anticipated reboot of  Gossip Girl. On the day of Gossip Girl’s premiere alone, the streaming platform invested almost $800K on a Facebook creative depicting the new wave of Upper East Side elites, next to the characters from the original 2007 series, almost double what they had spent for the entire week of Facebook advertising for Friends.


Previously in the return of the summer blockbuster, we looked at how HBO Max promoted the release of three esteemed franchises: King Kong, Godzilla and Mortal Kombat. The next legacy title on the platform’s marquee was the updated Space Jam movie. When the reality-bending film premiered on July 16th, HBO Max took another big bet on Facebook, investing over $560K on a Facebook creative bringing the 2021 and 1996 titles together. HBO Max invested four of its top 10 creatives for the movie, ranging from $319K-$560K.


And They Lived Happily Ever After

With a vault full of iconic characters and rich stories, no other company does nostalgia like Disney. Desktop Video ads are Disney Plus’ main digital ad platform, making up 46% ($97.5M) of its budget. For 2021, Disney Plus heavily promoted some of its most nostalgic driven titles such as WandaVision and Luca.

WandaVision debuted in January 2021 as an emotional TV series entry to Disney’s Marvel cinematic universe. Featuring Wanda the Scarlet Witch (first created in 1964), the series takes viewers through a heart-wrenching sitcom-inspired journey from the 60s to modern-day. Disney Plus invested over $5.6M on a Desktop Video ad for the show ahead of the premiere a significant portion of the overall $20M it spent digitally to advertise the show.). 

Another heavily anticipated Disney Plus debut was the Pixar film, Luca. Set against the 50s-60s Italian Riviera, Luca’s nostalgic imagery is heavily featured within its video ads. Ahead of the movie’s release in June, Disney Plus spent almost $767K on a Desktop Video ad teasing the release and three of the creatives made it into   Disney Plus’ top 10 creatives for June. 


A Mountain Of Entertainment

Hot on HBO Max’s heels, last April we looked at how Paramount+ outspent the competition in digital ads when it debuted.1. Paramount+ put its fan-favorite titles such as Spongebob, StarTrek and Survivor front and center in its digital ads. Since the streaming platform’s debut, Desktop Display ads make up the majority of its digital ad strategy with 42% ($61.7M going to display), but the brand has relied on other platforms to promote its legacy titles.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run, was Paramount’s big exclusive debut and the company  invested over $890K on a Desktop Video ad for the movie and service. Paramount+ utilized Spongebob’s vast popularity and promoted the movie two other times within its top 10 digital creatives. The two other creatives were Facebook and Desktop Display ads worth $314K and $416K, respectively. 

Paramount+ also leveraged its emblematic mountain top logo in its “Mountain of Entertainment” digital video campaign, which ran the month before the service launch. The campaign appealed to consumers by bringing together the likes of big stars such as Patrick Stewart/Picard from StarTrek, Beavis and Butthead, Dora the Explorer and many more. The top creative for the campaign was a Desktop Video ad worth over $456K and other Desktop Video ads for this campaign constituted half of the streaming service’s Top 10 creatives for February. 

For summer 2021, the reboot of iCarly received much critical fanfare, however, the new show was not often published in Paramount+’s digital ads. Unlike HBO Max, which heavily promoted its reboots and legacy titles, Paramount+ only promoted the iCarly reboot twice within its top 20 creatives. The two ads were Desktop Video ads ranging from $228K to $327K.


Going Backwards, Forward

The saying goes, “out with the old, in with the new,” but in paid  media–what’s old eventually ends up becoming new again. The streaming wars will continue with each company vying for ways to make their content stand out and appeal to consumers, and we suspect they’ll continue invest heavily in nostalgic creative to capture hearts and eyeballs . After a year of hardships and a shaky move towards a new normal, these marketers are no doubt hoping that consumers will continue to rely on  familiar icons to feel more comfortable.  

As always, we’ll be watching to see how streaming platforms will take their next step in their digital ads to resonate with new subscribers. Want more insights like these? Check out our insights dashboard to see top advertisers, spend, and impressions for the brands and categories in your industry.

About Author
Sarah Fleishman

With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.

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