Boomers vs. Reality, What We Lie About, Etc.

It’s one thing to be optimistic, another to be delusional. The distinction is brought to mind by one bit of data in a survey of baby boomers, from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago: 79 percent of 43- to 57-year-olds believe they won’t experience “serious limitation” on their physical activity “until beyond age 70.” What are these people thinking? While average lifespan is pushing toward 80, this doesn’t alter the fact that many boomers will be dead before 70—a circumstance quite likely to curtail their physical activity. Even among those who keep breathing during the next few decades, there’s no rational basis for supposing medical science will stave off all the effects of encroaching old age. In this as in other respects (for instance, their shoddy job of saving for retirement), boomers are setting themselves up for one of the great mass-scale disillusionments in human history. Self-appointed advocates for the elderly often badger advertisers to populate their ads with plausibly vigorous old folks. That’s fine, but savvy marketers should also ready themselves to cater to the we-wuz-robbed mentality of aging boomers who end up neither as fit nor as prosperous as they’d expected.

Assuming they answered the questions honestly, Americans are a selectively dishonest bunch. So we infer from an online poll by Reader’s Digest on the subject of honesty. As you’d guess, a majority of people tell white lies—as with the 71 percent who said they’ve “lied to friends or family members about their appearance, to avoid hurting their feelings.” Sizable minorities lie in more substantial ways, though: 13 percent said they’ve shifted blame to a co-worker for something they did; 12 percent have switched price tags to get a lower price on a purchase; 16 percent have taken something valuable from their company for personal use; 17 percent have cheated on their tax returns. On the home front, 32 percent have lied to their spouse/partner about the cost of a recent purchase; 28 percent have lied about their relationship with another person.

The luxury cheapskate is entrenching himself (and herself) as a consumer category. In a Unity Marketing survey of people whose income tops $100,000, respondents were asked whether they made their most recent luxury purchase at a discount or at full price. In the electronics, linens/bedding, kitchenware/cookware and apparel/accessories categories, more than 70 percent of respondents snagged the item on sale. Only in the beauty/fragrance sector did a majority (59 percent) make their most recent luxury purchase at full price. Elsewhere in the poll, people were asked to single out the luxury purchase of the past year that gave them “the most personal satisfaction and happiness.” A plurality (40 percent) cited such “experiential luxuries” as travel, entertainment, spa visits and beauty products. Thirty-three percent pointed to home-related items.

You might think boxers vs. briefs is a wedge issue in America. Instead, a Mintel report indicates that a significant number of people patronize boxers and briefs, to say nothing of the third-way category known as “boxer-briefs.” According to the study, 69 percent of all consumers who buy underwear for men purchase briefs, while slightly less than half buy boxers and more than one-third buy boxer-briefs. Age is a dividing line. Consumers in the 18-34 bracket buy three times as many boxers as those in the 55-plus cohort. By the way, young women who buy underwear for men are an unheralded majority: 60 percent of the 18-34s do so, as do 58 percent of the 35-54s. (The number falls to 32 percent among those 55-plus). Timid souls that they are, just 22 percent of men buy lingerie for women.

Given a choice between a maybe-mad cow and a certainly-serene carbohydrate, which will Americans eat? Beef appeared to be on the rebound last year as Atkins-influenced consumers turned to red meat as part of their carbophobic diets. Now, though, heavy media coverage of the first mad-cow case in the U.S. is making Americans wary of beef. In an NPD Group survey fielded in the week after the mad-cow news broke, 72 percent of adults said they’re concerned about the disease. Nonetheless, 74 percent said they intend to eat as many or more burgers as they had before American cows started going berserk. Seventy percent said they believe the foods sold in supermarkets are safe, and 53 percent said the same of restaurant foods.

The good news: Consumers are more satisfied with the goods and services they buy than they were two years ago. The bad news: They aren’t nearly as satisfied as corporate executives think they are. This pair of findings comes from research by Wirthlin Worldwide. As you can see from the chart below, the number of people saying they’re more satisfied is considerably larger than the number saying they’re less satisfied. Still, the more-satisfied cohort constitutes a bare majority. That will come as an unpleasant surprise to the corporate executives who participated in the poll. When asked whether their customers are more or less satisfied than was the case two years ago, 60 percent said satisfaction has increased somewhat and 19 percent said it has increased greatly. Just 14 percent of the executives said customers’ satisfaction had decreased (12 percent “somewhat,” 2 percent “greatly”). We can interpret the executives’ excessively rosy outlook as an unintended consequence of the recent corporate vogue for “customer relationship management” and the like. Because they put effort and money into raising consumer satisfaction, executives have a bias toward believing that satisfaction must indeed have risen. (More than a few careers hang on fostering that belief.) In the bad old days when companies paid no heed to consumer loyalty, at least executives didn’t have such a stake in failing to acknowledge that their customers were dissatisfied.