The crowd had not dug out their ripped jeans, Doc Martens or boxy lumberjack flannels. But on a June night in Los Angeles, Art Alexakis could see that the '90s are back.
The lead singer of Everclear pulled up to the Greek Theatre to find a near-capacity crowd waiting to hear hit songs from nearly 20 years ago. It was the second night of the Summerland Tour, the brain child of Mr. Alexakis and Sugar Ray frontman and TV presenter Mark McGrath. Their bands, along with 1990s alternative radio mainstays Marcy Playground, Lit and the Gin Blossoms, were banking on a generation prepared to pay to revisit the decade.
"We've been talking about doing a '90s tour for about four or five years. A lot of people have that conversation, people in the industry," Mr. Alexakis said. After 33 shows across the United States, the tour wrapped last weekend. It was profitable enough that he is already planning a repeat next summer.
"In a huge down market, we had 2,200 walk up in Fort Worth, Texas. People were just chomping at the bit for all of it, and staying till the very end ... even on Tuesdays and Sundays and Wednesdays," he said, with a sensitivity to weeknight schedules that becomes a married 50-year-old with a young child.
Everclear and company are not the only ones to recognize the value of '90s nostalgia. Marketers are beginning to latch on to the decade to reach a lucrative target market.
This spring's slate of film releases included the 3D re-release of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic and American Reunion, the latest instalment of the teen movie franchise that kicked off in 1999. In March, Universal confirmed it will re-release Jurassic Park in 3D next summer, two decades after its 1993 theatrical release. A movie version of schlocky '90s lifeguard TV drama Baywatch is reportedly also in the works.
This year's Coachella music festival in the California desert included the recently reunited group Pulp, as well as musicians prominent in the '90s such as Mazzy Star, James, and Noel Gallagher.
Garbage released its first album in seven years. No Doubt just released their first album in 11 years. Hip hop group Public Enemy, most prominent in the late '80s and early '90s, have two albums out this year. The New Kids on the Block reunited in 2008, followed by the reappearance of other '90s boy bands, such as Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees – all drawing revenue from fans nostalgic for the saccharine ear-worm songs they loved in their youth.
The advertising industry has taken notice. During Olympic prime time on Aug. 2, retailer Old Navy's back-to-school campaign had its national debut in Canada on CTV, with an ad featuring cast members from the original Beverly Hills, 90210: Jason Priestley, Luke Perry, Jennie Garth and Gabrielle Carteris.
The ads follow one that came out in June, a parody of best-of album commercials, featuring New Kids on the Block singer Jordan Knight singing the store catalogue.
It's a big bet on reaching parents during a crucial selling season: Old Navy and other clothing retailers marketing to young people depend on the back-to-school season for a major lift in sales: Last year, sales of children's apparel in Canada rose 34 per cent from July to August, and that period accounted for 27 per cent of children's apparel sales for the year, according to the NPD Group.
For many younger kids, it's the parents – many of whom came of age in the '90s – who make those purchasing decisions. If the store chain can create enough goodwill by recreating the campy drama of 90210 or early boy band infatuation, they may come in for school clothes for their kids – and give the store a chance to market their adult clothes to them as well.
That is why this type of nostalgia is a cyclical trend. Happy Days began marketing youth nostalgia for the '50s and '60s to early baby boomers in the '70s. Many bands from the '60s have reunited to dip into the boomer pocketbook. Advertising has often targeted boomers with images from the days of Woodstock, and not always to the desired effect. Fans were up in arms when the Bank of Montreal co-opted Bob Dylan's '60s protest song, "The Times They Are A-Changin' " in a 1996 commercial. So dependable is the cycle of nostalgia, that it once prompted the headline from the Onion: "U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past.' "
The fact that it is now the '90s being worked through the retro cycle is simply because the generation that took Kurt Cobain's death particularly hard has aged into a lucrative market. They are becoming established in their careers, and many are making purchasing decisions for an entire household. The girls who once swooned over Jordan Knight are now marketers' catnip: moms.
"People who came of age in the '90s are commanding more and more dollars and are a target market," said Max Valiquette of Toronto ad agency Bensimon Byrne and founder of consulting agency Youthography, which specializes in trends and new media. "...You will see a lot more of it, that's for sure."
It's not the first time that Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency behind the Old Navy ads, has employed the tactic. In 2009, the agency launched a truly bizarre ad for Burger King set to an altered version of the Sir-Mix-a-Lot hit "Baby Got Back." The song has also been used in ads for Target and Butterfinger.
With growing recognition of '90s nostalgia as a revenue draw for marketers, Everclear's Mr. Alexakis is hoping to bring his tour to Canada next summer – an idea Canadian promoters rejected the first time around.
"It was about celebrating the hits of the '90s. Specifically alternative hits. There's no 'Baby's Got Back' going on, you know what I mean?"
Which is not to say he would not consider a collaboration with Sir Mix-a-Lot.
"Maybe. I'd love to do a golden era of hip hop, like '85 to '95. That would kick ass," he said. In the current climate, Mr. Alexakis is sure it would sell. But there are some logistical difficulties.
"The hotel would look like a war zone, are you kidding me?"