It’s November. The nights are closing in. Donald Trump might just win and innocent people still have to watch Ed Balls dance. Summer has gone and so too has the Great British Bake Off – a rare ray of sunshine on this cold, cold island now eclipsed.
But it went out in style. In fact, a staggering 14.8 million of us tuned in to see Candice pout her way to glory in the series’ BBC swansong. Baking is now officially more popular with the British public than football.
The question is why has Bake Off been so popular? And what can such a massive public event tell researchers like us about the national psyche?
Central to the success of Bake Off are its nostalgic undertones. Bake Off has triumphed because of the quaint vision of the past it relies on – a past characterised by homemade jam, village fetes and saucy puns.
It’s easy to sneer at the Bake Off as twee ‘austerity nostalgia’ and write it off as the televisual equivalent of a tea towel that says Keep and Calm and Eat Scones. Doing so, however, misses the point. Genuine nostalgia is too powerful an emotional touchstone to dismiss as twee or saccharine.
Nostalgia was initially diagnosed as a neurological disease affecting Swiss mercenaries suffering from cowbell-induced brain damage (no, really). Now, though, nostalgia is seen as a positive and universal emotional force by psychologists.
The University of Southampton’s Dr. Tim Wildschut, for example, has published research showing that nostalgia not only makes people feel good about themselves, but also lends meaning to people’s lives and strengthens social bonds.
It’s no surprise then that in times so uncertain people are looking to feel good about themselves and the world around them through the telly. The rosy glimpse in to yesteryear offered by the Bake Off makes it the epitome of comfort viewing. It also gives viewers a sense of community both before and after viewing. Who knew that some beardy bloke putting a baked Alaska in to a bin because he was upset could be so talked about he’d get a slot on Newsnight? This is all goes some way to explaining the show’s staggering popularity and the furore surrounding the £75 million move to Channel 4.
That nostalgia is so powerful is an open-secret in the world of advertising and marketing. In recent years nostalgic imagery has been deployed by brands time and time again, helping to sell everything from Milk Tray to Microsoft.
But it’s important to not just rely on nostalgia, but to understand how and why it affects us. It’s very easy to get wrong and get left looking hackneyed and cynical. Great research can tap in to how and when nostalgia washes over us – that classic Proustian moment – and helps us to achieve a little bit of that Bake Off magic.
By Rob Booth