A Recession In Envy, Olfactory Factors, Etc.

Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not? Since the mid-1990s, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has posed that question to people who work full- or part-time. In light of the hits the economy has taken in the past few years, you’d expect to see a decline in the number of people saying they do earn enough. Instead, the reverse is true: In a poll fielded this month, 51 percent of respondents said they earn enough to lead the kind of life they want. Fifty-three percent said so in February. By contrast, the highest “yes” tally during the 1990s boom was the 46 percent recorded in May 1997. Most of Pew’s polls got “yes” totals in the low 40s. By August 1999—i.e., when the economy was roaring along—it had drifted down to 39 percent. How to account for this anomaly? One factor that suggests itself is envy. As the boom increased some people’s financial means, it fed more people’s acquisitive impulses. The spectacle of 23-year-old Internet millionaires gave the rest of us a vivid sense of what we’d buy if we were rich, too. Thus, one effect of the bubble economy was to give people an inflated sense of their needs and deserts. While the travails of recent years have curtailed consumers’ purchasing power, perhaps there’s been a sharper correction in their sense of what they need. We’ll see if that lasts as the economy strengthens.

You can’t say college students lead a pedestrian life. A new 360 Youth College Explorer poll of students age 18-30 finds that 72 percent own or have access to a car for personal use. Thirteen percent plan to buy one in the next year. In the past two years, students spent $30.9 billion on cars. Fielded by Harris Interactive, the study found 39 percent of the vehicles bought by students in that period came from new-car dealers. The average price for all student-bought cars was a respectable $9,860. What do students look for when they get wheels? Overall quality, dependability and price were rated “very important” by more than 80 percent. Fewer accorded as much importance to style (41 percent), color (23 percent) and “impressiveness” (11 percent).

Much as they hate high gas prices, many Americans won’t give up their recreational driving. A poll by the AAA finds 36.9 million of them planning to drive at least 50 miles from home during Memorial Day weekend, up 3.6 percent from 2003. There was an even higher increase (5.3 percent) in the number planning to travel by plane during the weekend. What destinations did respondents favor? Beaches were tops, cited by 24 percent of those planning a trip for the weekend. Close behind were small towns/rural areas (22 percent) and cities (21 percent). Eliciting less interest were lakes (8 percent), mountains (8 percent), state/national parks (5 percent) and theme/amusement parks (3 percent).

No doubt the groom feels she’s perfect as is. But that doesn’t stop the average bride from wishing to look better-than-average on her big day. An online poll by Modern Bride asked brides-to-be to say which of a half-dozen steps they’d take if money were no object. Slightly more would hire a personal trainer (28 percent) than get their teeth whitened (27 percent). Thirteen percent would get a dermatological treatment; the same number cited laser hair removal. Eleven percent would go for liposuction, and 1 percent would get Botox. Just 7 percent “wouldn’t do a thing.”

And you think your commute is long. A Bureau of Transportation Statistics report says 3.3 million Americans are “stretch commuters,” traveling 50 miles or more one way to get to work. Nineteen percent of stretch commuters go 100 or more miles each way. Adding to the stereotype of the “distant” male, the report says 84 percent of stretch commutes are made by men. (For a look at mega-commutes by some people in the ad business, see page 28.)

Here’s one way to reduce your costs for prescription drugs: Don’t fill the prescription when your doctor gives you one. A report by Ipsos-Insight says the number of prescriptions filled by Americans rises each year. “However, the rate of non-fulfillment for prescriptions received from physicians outpaces the growth in prescription drug expenditures or fulfillment by consumers.” Last year, 16 million households failed to fill a prescription, up 21 percent from 2002. Non-compliance is highest in the case of branded prescription drugs for which there is no generic equivalent. The report does note a rise in insurance coverage for prescription drugs. In 2003, 85 percent of prescriptions filled were paid at least in part by insurance, vs. 78 percent in 1998.

Can a person become a success without a college education? A majority of adults think so. In a Public Agenda poll for The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 37 percent of adults said they think “a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world”; 61 percent said “there are many ways to succeed in today’s work world without a college education.” Still, 76 percent said college is “more important now than it was 10 years ago.” And 87 percent said a high school graduate “should go on to college because in the long run they’ll have better job prospects.”

In our design-conscious era, marketers strive to please the consumer’s eye. There are some product categories, though, where the consumer’s nose gets its say. A poll by Opinion Research Corp. offers some examples (see the chart below). One surprise: In only three categories—candles, soap/body wash and shampoo/conditioner—were women more likely than men to say fragrance has a very important role in their purchase decisions.