Mixed Blessings

Mysterious Optimism, Compare and Save, Etc.

The American mixture of optimism and realism can yield some peculiar hybrids. A poll by the American Research Group offers an example. Given all the bad economic news, just 27 percent of respondents could bring themselves to claim their household finances were getting better. Nearly as many (25 percent) said their finances were getting worse. But when people were asked to guess how their finances will be a year from now, 50 percent said they’ll be better and 18 percent said they’ll be worse. For many people, in other words, their finances aren’t getting better but they’ll mysteriously end up being better. Savvy marketers will calibrate their sales pitches accordingly.

Let’s say you could be any age. Which would you pick? In an ORC International poll of adults, respondents’ choices averaged out to age 32. Playing true to their less-mature form, men picked an ideal age five years younger than that preferred by women (29 vs. 34). Maybe marketers of age-defying products should shift their attention more toward the lads. While the respondents generally picked an ideal age that’s younger than their own, the older ones seem not to yearn for out-and-out youthfulness. Thus, the 55-and-older cohort opted for an ideal age of 42 and the 35-54s made an average choice of 31. The 18-34s would like to be 24, though a further breakdown showed the 18-24s preferring to be 21—i.e., just old enough to buy a beer.

Now that the term “rush hour” has become a cruel joke on the drivers who endure it, mass transit systems have a natural theme for their ads. Sound Transit, which serves the Puget Sound region, uses it to good advantage. And it does so in a way that makes drivers feel the advertiser is on their side and not hectoring them in do-gooder fashion. Copacino + Fujikado of Seattle created the ad.

Maybe consumers should pay attention to drug commercials’ obligatory mentions of potential side effects. As reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, a study has found that 25 percent of outpatients had “adverse” reactions to prescription drugs. Although a majority of reactions were inconsequential, 13 percent were rated as “serious.”

If you take Americans’ dining habits as a leading economic indicator, good luck in deciphering current trends. A report by The NPD Group says spending at restaurants was flat for the latest December-February quarter in comparison to the same period a year earlier. At fast-food outlets, traffic was down 2 percent. But that doesn’t necessarily mean consumers stayed home to gnaw on crusts of bread. The report says that “while people are eating out less, they are trading up to slightly higher priced restaurants.” The average check was up 2 percent, even as the average number of items people ordered was down 2 percent. That pattern is reflected in the fact that the “casual dining” sector eked out a 1 percent increase in traffic.

Did the rise in consumer-confidence indices last month stem from victory in Iraq? Not entirely. The decline in gasoline prices (after a long run-up) also played a role. In analyzing its latest confidence data, the University of Michigan noted that the drop in pump prices “prompted more favorable assessments by consumers of their finances.” And it contributed to their expectation that the consumer-price inflation rate will be just 2.4 percent in the year ahead. As noted in a recent edition of “Takes,” Americans have persisted in seeing inflation as a big problem for them, even though it has (gasoline prices aside) been very tame in recent years.

You can have a kid or you can have a luxury car, but you’re unlikely to have both. In a study of the luxury-vehicle market, Mintel says households of one or two people account for a disproportionate share of category sales. Nearly half of luxury/ sports cars are owned by two-person households. But that does not necessarily mean the target audience skews young. “A key market for luxury cars will be drivers over age 55 whose children have left home.” What factors guide luxury buyers when they purchase a vehicle? Not financing, the environment or gas mileage, according to Mintel. Handling and safety features are the more influential considerations.

It’s not the strangest haircut we’ve seen lately (our offices are downtown). The one displayed in the ad here is the most appropriate, though, for publicizing a tennis tournament. Carton Donofrio Partners of Baltimore created the piece.

Here’s a startling statistic for those of you who seldom make it through a week without running to a cash machine: In the past year, according to a Gallup poll, more than one-third of adults used ATMs either not at all or less than once a month. Old folks were more likely than others to be ATM avoiders. Even in the 18-29 cohort, though, 31 percent used ATMs less than once a month.

How much do people need to save before they feel it’s worth comparison shopping? It depends on the category, finds a poll by the Consumer Literacy Consortium. In general, people must feel they’re saving 10-25 percent before they’ll take the trouble of trying three or more sellers. For a 10-gallon tank of gas, the median saving needed is $2. For a $20,000 car, it’s $2,000. The savings needed to prompt comparison shopping for some other items: $25 for a two-day car rental; $50 for a 27-inch color TV; $75 for a round-trip plane ticket; and $100 for a year of auto insurance.

If a sustained bull market lifts stock prices, will the storied “wealth effect” lead affluent Americans to spend lavishly? Not necessarily. Quite apart from the chastening experience of recent years, some of those folks won’t be positioned for a sudden surge in their wealth. In a Harris Interactive survey of well-to-do Americans, 34 percent said, “I’ve moved my assets to less risky investments.” Another 27 percent have “switched some assets into vehicles with guaranteed returns.” On the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent said they’re “buying stock now because the prices are lower.” Those are the intrepid souls big-ticket marketers will need to target if and when stocks come back to life.