On Feb. 8, Mary Lou and Gene Dankowski of Minneapolis celebrated a half-century of marriage. The next day, millions of Americans reveled in another 50th anniversary, of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Both commemorations were meaningful, if in entirely different ways.
The Dankowskis can remember that day like it was yesterday, just as so many baby boomers can remember exactly where they were when they watched the Fab Four’s U.S. debut.
But in a year awash in 50th anniversaries, many salutes to the events, debuts and inventions of 1964 will not warrant all the hubbub. Arby’s, anyone? Acrylic paint? “The Addams Family”? (And those are just the A’s.)
There’s a reason why we’re hearing more about 50-year anniversaries these days. “The boomers were the first generation to ever be marketed to,” said Mary Meehan, a consumer and cultural consultant in Minneapolis.
Think about “Mad Men”: Cars, toys, fast food, all forms of consumption were being advertised to a postwar generation with money to spend.
Whether any of these anniversaries resonate today depends on the role their debuts played in the culture of the time, Meehan said. “It’s tapping into some meaningful values, whether it’s humorous or dramatic or indulgent or tragic. Just because it’s the 50th anniversary of something doesn’t mark it as an icon.”
Other factors that matter: timelessness, shared experiences and the nature of our passion. That holds true whether the item or event was hard news or pop culture, a surgeon general’s report on smoking or “Dr. Strangelove.”
“A while back we [marketed] the 75th anniversary of Scrabble,” said Jack Stanton, group director for brand sociology at Carmichael Lynch media agency. “I wouldn’t call that weighty. Some things are iconic to a niche of people. Barbie, to a certain niche of people, that’s powerful. Some things go deep, and some things go broad. The Beatles are both.”
The Beatles’ TV appearance proved “more potent because it was a shared experience,” Meehan said. “People share moments now in a different way, like tweeting during the Oscars. [Baby boomers] can all talk about watching the  moon landing as if we were in the same room. Do we have those same feelings ignited 50 years later? That’s the mark of a cultural icon.”
Contemporary cultural relevance also is important, Stanton said.
That’s why we won’t see a salute to the VCR or the eight-track tape, both invented 50 years ago but now confined to the dust bins of history. But the popular movies and music we played on them have staying power.
“Some of these icons have a timeless quality to them. You see kids take to musicians we held up, like Bob Dylan,” Meehan said. Other icons might strike a similar nerve, but are only important to a certain generation. So one generation might retain a passion for the Easy Bake Oven, while another has the same emotional connection to Transformers or Hello Kitty, she said. “It’s that elusive element, and no marketer can produce it.”
Big doings back in the day
Today, the boomers — the last of whom were born in 1964 (another anniversary!) — are a nostalgic bunch. But it wasn’t always this way.
“It’s easy when you’re young to say, ‘New big things are happening all the time, and I won’t be nostalgic about them,’ ” Stanton said.
As it turns out, new big things were happening all the time five decades ago.
“Everything was in a massive state of flux,” Stanton said. “The earliest wave of boomers were coming of age, out of their parents’ shadows and able to make their own purchases and decide their own cultural boundaries.”
It was a fertile time not only for merchandise but for merchandising, Meehan said.
“The luxury of having cultural icons marketed to them had not happened before,” she said. “There was such prosperity and invention.”
For her part, Mary Lou Dankowski said she doesn’t have a strong connection to the cultural and historical events of 50 years ago. She was too busy planning a wedding and honeymoon, and then having her first child nine months later.
But she does have an indelible memory of that February, aside from her betrothal. “There wasn’t a drop of snow on the ground, not a drop,” she said. “Everything was just brown.”
After the winter we just endured, that is something worth getting nostalgic about.