Mixed Blessings: Our Favorite Foods, Consumer Timidity, Etc.

Nothing comforts like carbohydrates. In the new edition of its yearly “How America Eats” survey, Bon Appétit asked readers to list their favorite comfort foods. Pasta (included by 69 percent of respondents) and mashed potatoes (52 percent) finished among the top four, along with pizza (57 percent) and ice cream (54 percent). If America succumbs to the promises of today’s carbophobic diets, we’ll be a slimmer but sadder people. When participants were asked to name the food they would gorge on if nobody was watching and they didn’t care about calories, ice cream led the field (with 15 percent) in a widely scattered vote, trailed by chocolate (13 percent), cake (7 percent), cheesecake (6 percent) and potato chips (5 percent). Elsewhere in the survey, respondents were invited to classify particular foods as either “yum” or “yuck.” Prominent on the “yum” list were berries, tomatoes, rice, crab and steak. Among foods with a high “yuck” quotient were liver, turnips, lima beans and raw oysters.

And you people used to be fun. The prolonged economic downturn has taken its toll on consumers’ animal spirits. We get fresh evidence of this from a Wirthlin Worldwide poll in which adults were asked what they’d do if they won $2,000. More than two-thirds said they’d use it for some virtuous purpose, whether paying off debt (41 percent), saving the loot (21 percent) or investing it (11 percent). Twelve percent said they’d devote the $2,000 to home improvements—a form of spending that one could categorize as an investment. Just 6 percent said they’d blow it on a “dream vacation,” while 4 percent would spend it on electronics or other household items. This caution reflects people’s general anxiety more than specific fears about their own finances, judging by the results of a separate study. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found three-fifths of adults expect their financial situation to improve a lot (9 percent) or some (51 percent) during the next year. Just 23 percent expect their finances to worsen during that period. As for the present, 7 percent said their financial situation is “excellent,” 38 percent said it’s “good,” 39 percent said it’s “only fair,” and 15 percent termed it “poor.”

It’s a pity Valentine’s Day doesn’t come in May. A poll commissioned by The Weather Channel finds a plurality of adults (40 percent) regard spring as the season most conducive to romance. Winter (19 percent), summer (17 percent) and autumn (16 percent) were closely bunched. Among 18-24-year-olds—i.e., the people who still look good in bathing suits—summer was a very close runner-up to spring (29 percent vs. 30 percent). Sunshine is the weather condition most widely viewed as romantic (cited by 35 percent), followed by rain (21 percent) and snow (11 percent).

Elsewhere on the romantic front, an online poll by Travel + Leisure and America Online finds that sand beats grass. Conducted via AOL’s Women’s Channel, the poll asked participants to pick the best sort of place for romance. “Secluded beach” won in a landslide (70 percent). “Rugged mountain peak” (12 percent) and “green valley” (10 percent) were the only other choices to reach double digits. And what’s the best setting in which to propose marriage? Forty-nine percent said “during a walk on the beach,” 27 percent said “while enjoying a scenic view,” and 20 percent picked “over a special dinner in the city.”

Beware of rising oil prices. Polling by Bigresearch adds to our suspicion that gasoline prices have a disproportionate effect on consumer attitudes. Asked last month how they’d react if pump prices reached $2 per gallon, 45 percent of respondents said they’d cut their outlays for other goods and services.

How did TV ever manage before sex was invented? A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation gives the details on television’s sex addiction. Looking at all sorts of programming other than daily newscasts, sports and kiddie fare, the study found 64 percent of shows include sexual content. The figure rises to 71 percent for prime-time broadcast shows and to 83 percent for teenagers’ 20 favorite programs. And you can’t accuse TV of being all talk and no action: 32 percent of shows now depict sexual behavior, vs. 28 percent in a study conducted four years earlier. Indeed, 14 percent of shows include scenes in which sexual intercourse is “depicted or strongly suggested,” vs. 7 percent four years ago.

It’s the Jekyll-and-Hyde technology. As an investment, the Internet has earned a place (for now) in the Disaster Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, it continues inexorably to expand its presence in people’s daily lives. The latest edition of the UCLA Internet Report finds Internet users were online for a weekly average of 11.1 hours in 2002—up from 9.8 hours in 2001 and 9.3 hours in 2000. As you can infer from the chart, this cuts into their usage of other media. Among people who’ve been online for six years or more, 38.2 percent said they watch less TV than they did before getting wired. Even among children, nearly one-third “now watch less television than before they started using the Internet at home.” (Incidentally, the study includes the hilarious fact that 2.5 percent of parents feel their kids watch “too little TV.”) Asked to assess the Internet as a source of information, a majority of users termed it “extremely important” (32 percent) or “very important” (28.5 percent). One in four rated it very/extremely important as a source of entertainment.