Axios What's Next

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Barbie, miniskirts, McDonald's purple Grimace — it's all adding up to a lot of nostalgia, no matter what generation you belong to, Kelly Tyko and Jennifer write.

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1 big thing: The summer of nostalgia

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Throw on your bell bottoms, grab some Dunkaroos and your Tamagotchi, and rollerblade over to the movie theater to catch "The Little Mermaid" or another new retro film — this is shaping up to be the summer of nostalgia.

Why it matters: From the upcoming "Barbie" movie to a purple McDonald's milkshake honoring the 52nd birthday of Grimace, throwback products and entertainment are huge this year — stirring up memories as they fill corporate cash registers.

Driving the news: The Gen Zers and millennials whom marketers call "kidults" seemingly can't get enough of foods, fashions and movie franchises that remind them of childhood, and profit-minded companies are eager to please them.

  • Transformers, Indiana Jones and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will all be on the big screen this summer.
  • Barbies and Hot Wheels are flying off the shelves — and both still make hot holiday toy lists.
  • On the heels of releasing adult Happy Meals in October, McDonald's is coming out today with a "Grimace Birthday Meal" — a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets, plus fries and a berry-flavored purple shake.

What they're saying: "The pandemic caused a lot of dislocation, and nostalgia is something of an anchor," says Neil Saunders, managing director of retail for data analytics firm GlobalData.

  • "There can be a lot of negative feelings about the present, especially in relation to technology and the economy — nostalgic products are a little relief to that."

Where it stands: Consumer brand companies all seem to be taking directions from the same "what's old is what's new" playbook.

  • Remember Count Chocula and Franken Berry cereals? General Mills thought so: Monsters Cereals, which debuted in 1971, will return to retailers nationwide later this summer.
    • In a nod to modernity, a new character named Carmella Creeper — a female! — joins the lineup.
  • Want to build the "life-sized Hot Wheels car of [your] childhood dreams?" NBC had a hunch. On May 20 it debuted a reality show called "Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge" in which 16 "superfans" compete.
  • Ready to swathe yourself in bubblegum pink clothes like Margot Robbie in the forthcoming Barbie film? Gap understands. Its "Gap X Barbie" collection lets you gear up for the July 21 release date, with pink sweatshirts, sunglasses and even rollerblades.

Barbie has company (and competition): There'll be 42 wide-release films this summer (compared to 22 last year), Axios' Sara Fischer reports — and lots of them lean hard on our rose-colored memories.

  • "To lure people from their sofas, cinema, exhibits and theater need to offer bulletproof experiences — events that resonate and captivate," says Brian Fenty, CEO and co-founder of TodayTix Group, a global network of 20,000 theaters.

What to watch: Disney's live-action remake of the 1989 animated film "The Little Mermaid" dominated the box office on Memorial Day weekend.

  • "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts" opened Friday, showcasing Optimus Prime and the rest of Hasbro's gang of versatile robots.
  • Possible summer blockbusters on the way include "The Flash" (June 16), based on the DC Comics character; "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One" (July 12); and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" (Aug. 4).
  • Nostalgic for the Manhattan Project? "Oppenheimer" comes out in July.

Do people have fond memories of Grimace, a blobby purple character with a vaguely menacing (yet also somewhat indistinct) personality?

  • He came on the scene in a 1971 TV commercial called "Evil Grimace" in which he attempted to steal shakes in McDonaldland (remember that?).
  • Lately he's been rehabilitated as a lovable character: McDonald's says the deep lavender Grimace Birthday Shake is "inspired by Grimace’s iconic color and sweetness."

The bottom line: From the current miniskirt revival (channeling the 1960s) to Count Chocula and friends (1970s) to the Ninja Turtles (1980s), there's something this summer for people who grew up in nearly every generation.

Ronald McDonald and Grimace at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2020. Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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2. A modest proposal: Ban cellphones in schools

Illustration of chains and padlock wrapped around a phone.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Phones at school are "a disaster," Jonathan Haidt, the prominent social psychologist, writes in The Atlantic, making the case for phone-free schools.

  • "Smartphones impede learning, stunt relationships, and lessen belonging," says Haidt, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business who's a leading voice on the debate over the health effects of social media.
  • Teachers and administrators see "clear links between rising phone addiction and declining mental health, to say nothing of declining academic performance."

State of play: Back in 2019, Haidt asked school leaders why they couldn't just ban phones during school hours.

  • "They said too many parents would be upset if they could not reach their children during the school day," he writes.
  • But "a lot has changed since 2019" and "the case for phone-free schools is much stronger now."

Between the lines: Parents may be more amenable to phone-free schools today, he argues, because they "now see the addiction and distraction these devices cause in their own children."

  • "Most of us have heard harrowing stories of self-harming behavior and suicide attempts among our friends' children," Haidt writes.
  • "We now also have more precedents: many more examples of schools that have gone entirely phone-free during the school day."

Neologism du jour: One way phones have harmed human relationships is through “phubbing” — a contraction of "phone snubbing" — which Haidt defines as "when a person breaks away from a conversation to look at their screen."

3. New effort unveiled to speed ocean CO2 removal

Illustration of an open clamshell with a carbon dioxide molecule inside instead of a pearl. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new nonprofit called the Carbon to Sea Initiative has raised over $50 million to back research and development into potentially accelerating carbon dioxide absorption into the world's oceans, writes Ben Geman, author of Axios Generate.

Why it matters: Carbon removal methods can complement — but not replace — emissions-cutting tech to keep the temperature-limiting goals of the Paris Agreement within reach, or help cool the world if they're overshot.

Driving the news: The philanthropy-backed group, spun out of Additional Ventures, is focused on better understanding the scalability and safety of "ocean alkalinity enhancement" (OAE).

  • It aims to speed natural weathering, in which alkaline minerals increase oceans' already mammoth CO2 uptake, while fighting ocean acidification.
  • The initiative will evaluate various OAE pathways, and "catalyze locally owned and operated field research sites."

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4. Begone, spotted lanternflies!

A robotic arm is pointed at a tree, poised to suction off lanternfly eggs.

The TartanPest

An autonomous robot developed at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science uses AI to detect egg masses laid by the the spotted lanternfly and a mechanical arm to suck them off the sides of trees and elsewhere.

Why it matters: The spotted lanternfly is an invasive pest that plagues trees, agriculture and people, attacking economically important crops — and it's been on the move this year.

How it works: The robot, called TartanPest, "pairs computer vision with a robotic arm attached to an electric tractor," according to Carnegie Mellon. (See a video of it in action here.)

  • It traverses fields and forests to stamp out egg masses, which "contain 30-50 eggs and are often found on trees, rocks, outdoor furniture and rusty metal surfaces," the school said.
  • Developed at the school's Robotics Institute, the TartanPest "uses a deep learning model refined on an augmented image data set created from 700 images of spotted lanternfly egg masses from iNaturalist."

Fun fact: Spotted lanternflies are a rare point of bipartisan agreement, with Democrats and Republicans in Congress backing a bill to make the insect a research priority, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Copious and effusive thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

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