Polaroids Are Popular (Again) With Gen Z and Millennials Enamored by Vintage Appeal

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  • Polaroids Are Popular (Again) With Gen Z and Millennials Enamored by Vintage Appeal

In 1977, The Rockford Files on NBC was entering its fourth season. Playing the dashing but down-on-his-luck private eye Jim Rockford was veteran Hollywood actor James Garner. The gig made the handsomely weathered Garner one of the most recognized men on the tube. So when Polaroid hired him to pitch its latest product, Americans sat up on their sofas and paid attention.

The product was the OneStep. “The easiest way ever to take pictures,” Garner assured viewers. No worries about focusing or light levels: “Just press the button and the motor hands it to you,” Garner said. Millions ran out and bought one, and the $39.95 OneStep became the best-selling camera in the U.S.

That was 42 years ago. Today—a time of AI, blockchain and 5G—a little plastic camera that spits out a square of instant-developing film probably seems irrelevant. But those who argue that the march of new technology is inexorable, take note: At this moment, enthusiastic hordes of millennials and Gen Zers are happily pointing and shooting their new Polaroid OneSteps they bought on Amazon.

a series of polaroid prints

Focus Group Edwin Land perfected his quick-developing film just after WWII (2). It was James Garner (2) who helped make the OneStep the most popular camera in America. Polaroid stressed the range of colors its film could produce (3). Pop moments included Outkast’s 2003 music video for “Hey Ya!” (4) and Taylor Swift’s “1989” album (5).
1: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; 2: Sean Mc/YouTube; 3: SenseiAlan; 4. OutKast/YouTube; 5. Big Machine Records;

“Polaroids are cool the way vinyl is cool,” explained brand and technology consultant David Deal, citing another bit of analog technology embraced by hipsters. “Polaroids are authentic. Gen Z and millennials value authenticity in a brand. Polaroids are [also] all about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a powerful emotion.”

Good reasons, all. And you might add one more. With an estimated 272 million Americans now using smartphones—and let us remember, there is a digital camera in each of those phones—a OneStep lets you strike a quirky, contrarian pose at a time of untrammeled digital conformity.

It only follows that Polaroid itself was the creation of a nonconformist. Edwin Land was a Harvard dropout whose pioneering work with polarizing filters led him to invent instant-printing film in 1943. Land’s first instant cameras appeared after World War II and, by the 1960s, they were everywhere. But it was the debut of the OneStep—“the world’s simplest camera”—that put Polaroid at the top of the segment.

two headshots next to each other, one in black and white, on a rainbow background

Polaroid found a separate fan base with professional photographers. In the time-pressured atmosphere of a shoot, photographers found that instant cameras were a cheap and fast way to check lighting and composition. Helmut Newton used Polaroids as test shots. Walker Evans, Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol all produced work with Polaroid as their medium.
Warhol: Bill Stahl Jr./NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Adams: Ted Spiegel/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Of course, nobody in the late 1970s could see the impending advent of the digital age. The 2007 debut of the iPhone (with its 2-megapixel camera that took beautiful photos) forced Polaroid into its second bankruptcy. A year later, when Polaroid announced it would stop making instant film, a group of fans started the Impossible Project to purchase Polaroid’s last remaining film factory and keep the stuff in production—if barely. What remained of Polaroid corporate played catch-up with digital cameras until 2017, when Polish energy mogul Wiaczeslaw Smolokowski, the Impossible Project’s largest shareholder, acquired Polaroid’s intellectual property. Soon after, the company created Polaroid Originals, which began making and selling analog instant cameras—including the OneStep+ and the OneStep 2, 21st century versions of their 1970s forebears.

While Polaroid instant cameras might be hip again, they’re not likely to be the hits they were in the old days. The film is expensive (a pack of 16 shots runs $29.99) and most people prefer the digital shareability of smartphone pics. But Deal believes that scale isn’t really the point. It might not even be a good thing. “If Polaroids become too common,” he said, “they could lose their coolness.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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