Katja Brunk, MARKUS GIESLER AND Ben Hartmann

Creating a Consumable Past:
How Memory Making Shapes Marketization


How does marketization take hold?

Consumer researchers tend to equate successful marketization – the transition from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist one - with the consensual acquiescence to an idealized definition of the socialist past. For this reason, little research has examined how memories about socialism influence marketization over time. To redress this gap, we bring prior consumer research on commercial mythmaking and popular memory to bear on an in-depth analysis of the marketization of the former German Democratic Republic. We find that, owing to a progressive sequence of conflicts between commercialized memories of socialism promoted by marketing agents and countermemories promoting socialism as a political alternative, definitions of the socialist past, and by extension, capitalism’s hegemony are subject to ongoing contestation and change. Our theoretical framework of hegemonic memory making explains relationships among consumption, memory making, and market systems that have not been recognized by prior consumer research on consumption and nostalgia for the past.


The Nostalgia for Socialism in the Age of Consumerism

Beyond Nostalgia: Why Are Socialist Brands Successful Again?

Why do millions of consumers in China, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and other former socialist societies still insist on socialist products and brands today? Conventional wisdom has it that they evoke feelings of nostalgia - a yearning for the “better” socialist past. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research makes the opposite case. Socialist brands succeed because they encourage consumers to accept the challenges of the capitalist present.

To illustrate this argument, Katja Brunk (European University Viadrina, Germany), Markus Giesler (York University, Toronto), and Benjamin Hartmann (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) conducted an analysis of the East German marketplace for socialist products and brands that emerged following the German reunification in 1990.

When the wall came down, East Germans purged their houses of anything that reminded them of socialism. As consumers were finally able to buy long desired Western goods, socialist products and brands quickly disappeared from East German retail landscape. Soon after reunification, however, these once rejected consumer goods re-appeared, constituting what has been famously referred to as the German “Ostalgie” market.

“We began by asking East Germans about their views of Ostalgie brands,” the authors write. “Consumers presented us with nostalgic images about a socialism that never existed.” These findings are consistent with the nostalgic consumption thesis.

However, this standard explanation was challenged when the authors analyzed advertising materials, movies, books, media articles, and consumer narratives over the entire 27-year period since reunification. They found that romantic GDR images changed considerably over time, that they were crafted in West German marketing departments, advertising agencies and film studios, and that these institutions re-tailored them to restore political unity following four historical disruptions: the privatization of East German industry, the dismantling of German social security, the publication of Stasi informants, and the Euro crisis.

These findings turn the conventional idea that the insistence on socialist brands is destabilizing to capitalism on its head. Creating a consumable past is a strategy for capitalist societies to transform political dissent into highly emotional consumption adventures, thereby nurturing consensus for the capitalist market system. Dressed as somewhat innocent nostalgic brands, these brands have a vital function for securing social order in turbulent times by giving their consumers a sense of pride, control, and identity. Here, marketing agents never simply serve consumers’ nostalgic desires through emotional products and brands. Rather, they operate as powerful historians who frequently re-design how we can or cannot imagine the past.

Brunk, Katja H., Markus Giesler, and Benjamin J. Hartmann (forthcoming), “Creating a Consumable Past: How Memory Making Shapes Marketization,” Journal of Consumer Research.