THE DESERVING RICH: Living Large in the Uplifting, Ungreedy ’90s
The ’80s just can’t win. Writing in The Washington Post, economist Robert J. Samuelson recently noted the “intriguing paradox” that the ’90s aren’t decried as a “decade of greed,” even though “the obsession with money” in this decade easily matches that of the ’80s. “As the money decade, the 1990s dwarf the 1980s.” But the current period has escaped the stigma that’s still applied, as a matter of course, to its predecessor. In the popular imagination, “Everything seems less soiled and more uplifting.” Whatever the justice of that (and for Samuelson, there’s not much), the difference in decadal image carries over to the way people spend their money. Grace & Rothschild weighs in on that topic with a report titled “The Affluent Market: Self-Centered and Socially Acceptable.” Where the affluent of the ’80s wanted “to be noticed,” those of the ’90s “want to be comfortable, secure, rewarded,” says a summary of the New York-based agency’s findings. Affluents’ spending in the ’80s was “externally driven”; their ’90s spending is “internally focused.” If fancy goods once were bought “as status symbols intended to make a statement to others, luxury purchases today reveal people’s values to themselves.” One receives such tidings with mixed feelings. For all the tackiness of conspicuous consumption, at least it connects the spender to other people–even if they are viewed mainly as an audience. It’s sociable, in its way, as people derive pleasure from the envy they evoke in others. But self-indulgence in the ’90s is purely about one’s self, and it’s accompanied by a sense that the pampering is “well-deserved.” Thus, the report suggests, spending by today’s monied Americans is unrestrained by qualms that might have tempered it in the greedy ’80s. “Because it’s now socially acceptable to be self-centered, they buy luxury without guilt, justification or regrets.” I don’t know about you, but it’s enough to make me nostalgic for the innocence (relatively speaking) of the ’80s.

PAST VS. FUTURE: Have a Nice Time
The great thing about having a time machine is that you could go back and see the first run of all those retro television shows you now enjoy in reruns. Nonetheless, many people would prefer to stay in the present. In a poll by ORC International of Princeton, N.J., summarized in the research firm’s Caravan Saray newsletter, people were asked what use (if any) they would make of a time machine were one put at their disposal. In an intriguing breakdown of the data by gender, men were significantly more likely than women (25 percent versus 14 percent) to say they’d visit the future. Perhaps the lads want to try their luck in a post-post-post-feminist world. In any case, a plurality of women would opt to stay put in the present (46 percent, compared to 38 percent of the men). Still, women were slightly more likely than men (38 percent versus 36 percent) to say they’d ride the machine back to the past. Having seen plenty of the past already, respondents age 65 and older were far less likely than those under 65 to say they would choose to visit it (20 percent versus 41 percent).

MIXED BLESSINGS: Getting Better and Better, Our Favorite Contraband, An Ursine Tirade, Etc.
You mean to say you haven’t noticed a vast improvement in your fellow Americans? It’s not as if they haven’t been trying. In fact, a study by Marketdata Enterprises says they were trying to the tune of $4.76 billion in expenditures on self-improvement products and services last year. Omit diet programs–better understood, perhaps, as self-reduction than as self-improvement–and the total is still a hefty $2.48 billion. As excerpted on the WorldOpinion Web site, the study foresees yearly growth of 9.1 percent through 2003 for a diverse market that ranges from self-improvement audiocassettes to inspirational books to lectures bymotivational speakers. Of course, you may wonder about the efficacy of all this spending. If Americans’ selves have already been improved by the billions of dollars they’ve lavished on the category to date, shouldn’t the trend line for future outlays point downward?

He’s got a reputation for putting on weird clothes and hanging around fast-food joints. But then, lots of people do that. An ad for a fund-raising venture on behalf of Ronald McDonald House of the Twin Cities reveals the athletic side of Ronald. True, he won’t climb the Andes himself, unlike the participants in a two-week trek through the mountains and rain forest of Peru. But do you think it’s easy to strap crampons onto size 18 clown shoes? Martin/Williams of Minneapolis created the ad.

Some imports are so popular that people try to sneak them into the country. A brief article in USA Weekend uses U.S. Customs data to rank the goods most often seized by that service’s agents. Movies, computer software, audio CDs and tapes were the leading category, accounting for 29 percent of all goods seized. Next came computers/computer parts (17 percent), followed by clothing (9 percent), toys and videogame cartridges (6 percent), fans (5 percent) and watches/watch parts (4 percent). Consider it a sign of the times that perfumes and makeup (3 percent) just barely edged out integrated circuits (2 percent).

So what if the Y2K problem brings an end to civilization (or the lack thereof) as we know it? In the meantime, it’s providing grist for some entertaining ads. Among the recent examples to come our way is a bubbly “Fool Your Friends” Y2K gag from agency Allen & Gerritsen of Watertown, Mass. A note elsewhere in this self-promotional direct-mail piece urges recipients to visit the agency’s Web site soon– “in case Y2K renders it useless.” We’re assuming, by the way, that the shop doesn’t have a champagne account on its roster.

It’s enough to give a bean a complex. In an experiment by the Food & Brand Lab at the University of Illinois in Champaign, labels on chocolate Power Bars were changed to indicate (falsely) that the product contains 8 grams of soy protein. Consumers were asked to taste a Power Bar and then discuss their perceptions of it. These subjects were more likely than a control group (whose Power Bar packages made no mention of soy) to complain that the product had a bad taste or aftertaste. Did the consumers of the soy-labeled Power Bars at least think the ingredient made the product healthier? Yes, but only if they were prompted by a specific health claim on the packaging. The findings are summarized in Consumer PI (as in Psychology Insights), a newsletter published by the Food & Brand Lab.

Amid all the high-concept advertising one sees these days, it’s a relief to find a campaign that’s graphically simple. To introduce Rice Krispies Chocolate Squares, the London outpost of Leo Burnett shows a moose being doused with chocolate. “Mmm, chocolate moose,” remarks the voiceover. “What will they think of next?” Another spot has two fresh-faced Brownies ringing a doorbell as they make their rounds to collect donations. When the door opens, they’re drenched by chocolate, inspiring the voiceover to muse about “chocolate Brownies.”

If a neighbor’s garbage can toppled over in front of his house, would you bother to set it upright on the sidewalk? Sure you would. But do your neighbors believe you’d be so civic-minded? A Star-Ledger/Eagleton Poll conducted among New Jerseyans suggests it could go either way. Forty percent of respondents “strongly” agreed and another 25 percent “somewhat” agreed that a neighbor would pick up the errant can. On the other hand, 16 percent “strongly” and 14 percent “somewhat” disagreed that this neighborly outcome would ensue. Getting at the state of neighborliness more broadly, the poll solicited reaction to the statement, “Most of the people in my neighborhood are trustworthy.” Fifty percent gave strong assent to that opinion, while 27 percent somewhat subscribed to it. Just 8 percent offered strong disagreement, with 9 percent somewhat dissenting.

Cute bears. Funny bears. Even gruff bears. But mad-as-hell bears? That’s a concept you don’t expect to see embodied in an ad. Yet here it is, an irate Yosemite bear complaining about “the man.” It seems The Yosemite Fund has been telling park visitors they shouldn’t feed the bears– even placing metal lockers at campsites so the people can thwart ursine food theft. According to the bear who speaks the text, these “do-gooders” spread “lies and innuendoes” about the harm that befalls the bears when humans feed them. Wrapping up his manifesto, he entreats readers not to feed The Yosemite Fund. “Remember, folks. You didn’t fall asleep clutching a stuffed Yosemite Fund volunteer every night as a kid. Think before you give.” For those benighted souls who believe the organization does worthy work, though, the ad manages to slip in its phone number and Web address. Katsin/Loeb of San Francisco created the piece.

LITERATE LEISURE: But Wouldn’t It Be Fun To Crochet a Bookmark?
What are Americans’ favorite pastimes? Given all the surveys that peer into their lives, you’d expect “chatting with pollsters” to top the list. Oddly enough, it didn’t turn up at all in a Harris Poll asking people to name their “two or three most favorite leisure-time activities.” Those who fear we’ve become an aliterate society will be heartened to learn that reading wins the most mentions. Even if some respondents lied, it’s good they felt this lie reflects well on them. As detailed on the PollingReport Web site, the survey found reading (named by 27 percent of respondents) easily ahead of TV viewing (22 percent). Third-place gardening (15 percent) is the activity to have gained the most ground since a 1995 poll, when it pulled 9 percent. A category called “computer activities” jumped from 2 percent then to 7 percent now. The items losing most favor since ’95 are entertaining (7 percent then, 3 percent now) and sewing/crocheting (7 percent then, 4 percent now).

RETIRING TYPES: Saving and/or Worrying
Financial-service advertising sometimes seeks to motivate its audience by hinting at the prospect of an impecunious old age. A survey conducted for ABC News and Money magazine indicates a pitfall of this approach: The people with money to invest tend to be the ones least fretful about their chances of retiring comfortably. In all, 54 percent of Americans are confident they’ll retire in style (up from 45 percent in 1996). There’s a split by income, though. Among respondents with yearly household income under 40,000, 39 percent are confident of a comfortable retirement. The figure rises to 73 percent in households whose income is $40,000 and up. Such confidence is also higher than the norm among men and among people who’ve been to college–both cohorts whose income exceeds the national average.