90s nostalgia: 6 times advertising took us back in time

How do brands use nostalgia to capture attention? We picked out some creative examples of ads that give us that 90s nostalgia.

Cycling shorts, bumbags, bucket hats… is this a list of must-have fashion items from a recent style magazine or is it the clothing we’re sporting in those embarrassing 90s photos? It’s both!

Just like the 90s is making a come back in our wardrobes, the influences of the decade are also returning to our screens. Brands are increasingly reviving the characters, music, toys (and even the hairstyles!) we knew and loved from this era to inject a dollop of nostalgia into their advertising. 

Only recently, we wrote about how Peperami has brought back its iconic Animal mascot, which was a staple of its advertising throughout the 90s, in an effort to attract original fans of the brand.

But it’s likely this tactic is about more than simply reaching out to the Millennial consumers at home. It’s also because Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are starting to reach senior creative positions and are getting all nostalgic themselves.  

90s come through! Today’s retro ads and activations

For proof of how we’re pining for the sights and sounds of our youth, take a look at these examples of retro ads and activations that have come out in the last 18 months:

KFC offers 1990s bowl cuts to promote Famous Bowls

KFC 90s bowl cut ad

The 90s is responsible for some very questionable hairstyles – rattails, perms, French crops and curtains, to name a few – but KFC decided to focus on the beautiful bowl cut to promote its cut-price bowl meals.

The fast-food brand created five modern-day takes on the bowl cut style and opened a pop-up hair salon in New York to dish them out. Those brave enough to undergo restyling received a gift card for a KFC Famous Bowl (some people will do anything for a freebie…). Anyone outside of New York could show a digital lookbook to their stylist, let them work their magic and share the results using the hashtag #KFCFamousBowlCuts – just for the fun of it.

KFC said on Twitter: “We’re taking the best thing to come in a bowl, and the best thing to come out of the 90s, and bringing them together.” 

Škoda insists it wasn’t the only ugly one in the 90s

If you were a kid during the 90s, you’ll know to accuse someone of owning a Škoda was quite the insult (almost as bad as a Lada, but not quite). But just like we got rid of our teenage spots, abandoned our braces and shed the puppy fat, Škoda has also refined its image since then.

In this ad, produced by agency Rosapark last year, Škoda reminds us that, while we may mock the earlier incarnations of its vehicles, we weren’t looking too hot back then either. It features a montage of mullets, acne and dreadful shirts. 

According to The Drum: “The film argues that the 90s was an era of ugliness, and while Škoda’s designs were also questionable at the time, they have matured just like anyone who once coated their hair in gel.”

Action Man “feels epic” as he strips off for Moneysupermarket 


Action Man stripping off to his blue underpants might shock some but we always knew he was a bit of a dark horse (and so did our Barbies). In this ’90s-inspired ad, the action figure is seen dancing and stripping to CeCe Peniston’s Finally, feeling epic after saving at Moneysupermarket.com.

Action Man rallies his troops to join him in the celebration, with guest appearances from Action Man Astronaut, Action Man Cricketer and Action Man Polar Explorer. It follows a previous ad for the price comparison site starring 1980s characters Skeletor and He-Man. 

Darren Bentley, Marketing Director at Moneysupermarket.com, told Campaign: “Action Man is the fourteenth character to ‘save money and feel epic’ in our long-running campaign and we hope viewers are as surprised and delighted by his dance moves as we are.” 

Renault rolls back the years to celebrate Clio 

Renault 90s ad

If you learned to drive in the 90s, there’s every chance you wanted a Renault Clio as your first car. The model was introduced in 1990 and voted European Car of the year in 1991, popular with consumers and critics alike.

29 years later the supermini is still going strong, and to illustrate how the Clio has stood the test of time, Renault built an experiential activation. Held in London, Birmingham and Manchester, the experience took visitors back to the 90s with retro decor, food (like Nerdz and Slushies), games (such as Twister, Tamagotchis and Pogs) and music (Britney Spears, Steps and the Spice Girls were, of course, on the playlist).

The event aimed to highlight the differences in technology, design and style between the 90s and today. It also featured a modern-day space where visitors could experience nail artists, photo booths, and a feature wall to take a selfie. 

According to Renault, the Clio is the “original Millennial”. The car brand said of the celebration: “As part of the pop-up, visitors were able to check out both a 1990s Mk1 Clio and modern-day car model to see the Clio’s transformation over the past 25 years.

“Remember the days where you had to roll down the windows to cool down, get out the map to see where you were going, and jam in a cassette to listen to tunes?” 

Krispy Kreme gives us a taste of the 90s

Krispy kreme 90s ad

Another brand getting in on the retro resurgence is Krispy Kreme. The doughnut maker has launched a selection of 90s inspired flavours. 

Its Throw Back Party range includes four new doughnuts, two slushies, and a shake. Remember Party Rings, the biscuit-based highlight of any kids party? Well, now you can enjoy a doughnut version! Also reinvented in batter is the pick ‘n’ mix favourite, the chocolate jazzie.

The launch of the new range earlier this month kicked off with in-store events where customers could try one of the 90s inspired doughnuts for just 90p, as well as enjoy some classic board games. Meanwhile, mobile gamers can play 90s inspired arcade games on Krispy Kreme UK Instagram and Facebook channels with a chance to win prizes. 

“The limited-edition retro collection with a modern twist will take those with sweet memories of their childhood to (gangsta’s) paradise,” Krispy Kreme said.

Kevin is Home Alone again

If the classic 90s movie Home Alone had been made in this decade it would probably play out a lot differently – Kevin would just call his parents’ on their mobile phones and they’d be back in a jiffy to pick him up. Not quite as exciting, right?

But what if a grown-up Kevin was left at home today, with all the latest home automation tech and a Google Assistant smart speaker? This is the concept Google explored for its 2018 Christmas campaign, even persuading actor Macaulay Culkin to reprise the role, 28 years after he first played the plucky eight-year-old.

Filmed in a meticulously re-created McCallister family mansion, ‘Home Alone Again with the Google Assistant’ pays homage to a number of iconic scenes from the movie: Kevin tells the hardware to add aftershave to his shopping list after running out, and tells the pizza delivery guy to “Keep the change, you filthy animal” without having to move from the sofa. Meanwhile, he is able to launch his ‘Operation Kevin’ routine of locking the doors and turning off the lights while eating his dinner of mac and cheese.

Flavia Simon, Director of Brand and Growth for the Google Assistant, told The Drum: “2018 has been a year of 90s nostalgia, and we know that Home Alone is one of the most beloved films from the 90s — especially during the holidays.

“We also know that Kevin McCallister would have had a much easier time thwarting the Wet Bandits if he had the Google Assistant by his side. So we created this film to be a celebration of Home Alone and today’s technology.”  

A final thought 

It’s not just the creative community that’s going nutty for 90s nostalgia. You can get a cuppa at a Friends themed cafe in Primark Manchester, put your hands up at a Kevin and Perry Tracksuit and Trance 90s Rave or sail off on a 90s cruise from Newcastle with pop groups B*Witched and 5ive.  

What once was cringe-worthy is now making us smile and Millennials are ready to reminisce. From Britpop to Mr Blobby, and SunnyD to Saved by the Bell, brands that choose the right cultural references for their campaigns can bring back special memories for this generation and capture attention.

Want to get more creative with your ads, but want to make sure they’re as effective as possible? Then you need to get savvy with creative testing! Check out our complete guide to creative testing to get up-to-speed with the most creative brands out there.

The complete guide to creative testing

An ad needs to be lots of things at once: it needs to stand out, resonate, and be memorable. Ticking all of these boxes is no easy feat. Here’s how.

Get your copy now

Bel Booker

Senior Content Writer 

Bel has a background in newspaper and magazine journalism but loves to geek-out with Attest consumer data to write in-depth reports. Inherently nosy, she's endlessly excited to pose questions to Attest's audience of 125 million global consumers. She also likes cake.

See all articles by Bel