Our Vintage Cars, Shopper Inertia, Etc.

If people tease you for driving an old clunker, you’ll take comfort in learning that the nation’s automotive fleet is getting older for the first time since the mid-1990s. A study by R.L. Polk & Co. finds the median age of passenger cars in the U.S. rose from 8.1 years in 2001 to 8.4 last year. That’s the creakiest median age for America’s cars since Polk began tracking this matter in 1970. For light trucks, median age rose to 6.6 years, vs. 6.1 the previous year. It’s not just that consumers are getting cheap, says the report. Rather, improvements in vehicle quality and engine technology make it practical for consumers to keep Old Betsy going longer.

No political controversy is complete without pontification by celebrities. True to form, the run-up to intervention in Iraq has prompted its share of intervention by Hollywood. The public has been largely unmoved, though, despite its otherwise endless patience for celebrity-centric news. In a Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics poll, 68 percent of adults said they’d prefer that Hollywood celebrities “keep their opinions on issues to themselves.” Even more revealing were the results of a recent Gallup poll, which asked: “Are there any entertainment celebrities who, if they spoke out in favor of a position, would make you more likely to favor that position?” Just 11 percent of respondents said “yes.” That’s fewer than the 13 percent who’d be more apt to oppose a political position if a given celeb came out in favor of it. Screen moguls and brand marketers worry that people will turn on celebrities whose opinions they dislike. But a further question arises: Having been unimpressed by specific celebrities’ orations on Iraq, will consumers infer that celebs in general mouth off too loosely about topics in which they have no special expertise? If so, this would work against the credibility of ads that feature celebrity endorsers. In other words, one actor’s uninformed views about war might leave people less inclined to heed another actor’s paid endorsement of peas.

What would prompt you to try a brand other than your usual favorite? In a survey commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, one-third of supermarket shoppers said a friend’s recommendation would prompt them to try something different. One-fifth said a free sample would do the trick. There’s much to be said for inertia, though. When asked to give the main reason why they buy a favorite brand, 23 percent cited the fact that they already use it and are familiar with the product. Fifteen percent said they buy a brand now because it was the one used at home when they were growing up. Twenty-six percent said “quality” is the chief attraction, while 11 percent said they buy the brand because it’s inexpensive.

No wonder there’s so much divorce. As a Harris Poll reminds us, men and women hold antithetical views. In this case, male-female incompatibility revealed itself in people’s responses to the query, “Who is your favorite TV personality?” The winner among male respondents was David Letterman, who makes a habit of tauntingly inviting Oprah Winfrey to appear on his show. The winner among female respondents was Winfrey, who pointedly ignores Letterman’s mockery of her.

Good news for marketers of neckties, bad news for marketers of retirement homes. The annual Quicken Fiscal Literacy Survey finds many upper-income Americans pushing back their likely retirement dates. Conducted among active investors whose household income tops $75,000 a year, the poll found 2.3 million families planning later retirements than once anticipated. Twenty-two percent of those surveyed said they expect a delay of eight or more years. While most investors are “staying the course” with their 401(k)s and IRAs, 73 percent believe it will take at least three years before their portfolios regain the value they had at the peak of the bull market. This presumes, of course, that they know the size of their nest egg. In fact, the study found that one-fourth of high-income Americans don’t know their net worth.

War or no war, people are determined to take a break. In a CBS News poll fielded last month, 33 percent said they expect to take a leisure trip by car during the next six months; 27 percent plan to fly to a vacation destination. Asked whether world events have made them less willing to fly, just 17 percent of respondents answered affirmatively. Any flying they do in the next six months is likely to be domestic, though. Fifty-five percent of respondents ruled out any overseas journeys during that period, even if they had the time and money to vacation abroad.

With the prospect of war muddying the consumer-confidence indices, marketers will pay extra attention to pollsters’ narrower questions about people’s finances. As a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicates (see the chart), a majority of workers feel their jobs—or at least their current salaries—are in peril. It’s worth noting, though, that such concern is common even when the economy is doing well. A Pew poll in 1997 found nearly half of its respondents concerned about job/salary security. Polling by Gallup, meanwhile, shows people sensing a sharp deterioration in the job market, whatever they might feel about their own circumstances. Asked whether this is a good or a bad time to seek a “quality job,” 16 percent said “good” and 81 percent said “bad.” That compares with a breakdown of 39 percent “good” and 56 percent “bad” in an August 2001 poll. How good a position do people feel they’re in to buy the things they’d like to have? Eleven percent said “very good” and 36 percent “somewhat good”; 18 percent said “somewhat bad” and 9 percent “very bad.” A noncommittal 25 percent said “neither good nor bad.” As to their “financial situation as a whole,” 43 percent of respondents said it’s getting better, 35 percent said it’s getting worse and 20 percent said it’s not changing.