Chili’s Slow Jam Taps Milliennial Nostalgia


Chili’s 3 for Me Remix


It’s been 3 years since Chili’s have run TV ads. Back in those happy pre-pandemic days they ran price-based spots with the slogan “Together We Chili’s”. Lots of food close-ups, lots of smiles, but not much to make them stand out from any other QSR brand.

The new Chili’s ad is different. It’s funny, it tells a story, and it leans in to one of the key trends of 2023 advertising so far – millennial nostalgia.

The ad stars R&B star Brian McKnight, known for his smooth early-2000s jams and for being one of the most Grammy-nominated artists never to actual win. Here McKnight plays himself, waiting tables at Chili’s and doing his best to avoid being recognised. He gives the game away a little though, when his explanation of Chili’s 3 For Me deal involves singing “Back To One”, his biggest hit.

McKnight’s appearance here is an excellent use of a celebrity. Chili’s have obeyed our golden rule of celebrity advertising – present an exaggerated or comic version of what the star is best known for. They’ve also done it without shifting any focus away from the brand itself. The ad has very good brand-building potential (3.9-Star Rating) but really aces its short term sales potential with an exceptional Spike Rating.

Chili’s ad follows several Super Bowl ads which played into cultural references and nostalgia. T-Mobile’s Grease-referencing ad scored highest of these, and plenty of newer commercials have made use of more recent pop-cultural high points, like 1995’s Clueless showing up in Rakuten’s game night ad.

Chili’s ad in particular speaks to one of the trickier questions brands using nostalgia need to answer: when’s the cut-off point? How far back is too far back and how recent is too recent? For instance, Grease is 45 years old this year, though it’s enjoyed plenty of revivals. The audience for whom Grease is a vivid cultural memory are in their 50s and 60s now, though as our Wise Up! report argues they remain an extremely valuable demographic. If you’re aiming at younger families you need something more recent.

That’s why we’re starting to see more ads which reference late 90s and early 2000s hits, like the Rakuten ad and the YouTube/NFL Keyboard Cat commercial. Over in the UK, this year’s Christmas ads contained references to Elf (2003) and Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” (2000).

Tapping Millennial nostalgia can be a risk – it’s worth noting that Chili’s put in plenty of explanation for anyone with no memories of Brian McKnight. But for advertisers who’ve long milked the 80s and 90s for nostalgia this is fresher ground with a lot of potential.

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