Mark Dolliver’s Takes

not-so-private lives: Tracking the Growth of Public Concern About Privacy
With the media standing ready to amplify our fears, it needn’t take long for a small-scale worry to become a national phobia. First, people see references to a problem. Then, they start to assume they should worry about it–whether they did before or not. That helps explain why worries about privacy have reached critical mass. As recently as January, a survey fielded for found 57 percent of Americans “remain unworried about invasions of privacy via computer technology.” Since then, the Census served as a catalyst for fears about unwanted disclosure of personal data. In a Gallup poll conducted at the end of February, 50 percent of respondents said they didn’t believe the Census Bureau would uphold its promise to keep information confidential. Meanwhile, hacker attacks heightened worries that any information on any computer was up for grabs. A flurry of allusions to “identity theft” helped to spread the sense that people who mind their own business are not immune to the most disruptive invasions of privacy. More recent polling has detected a broad upswing in privacy fears. A survey conducted in May for USA Weekend found 88 percent of Americans “are concerned about their privacy and consider protecting it important.” It’s telling that 58 percent said there’s been an occasion in the past 12 months in which they’ve refused to give out their Social Security number. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey fielded last month found 90 percent of respondents saying it’s getting harder to keep their personal information confidential. As things stand, 69 percent are “very concerned” about their ability to keep such data private, with another 17 percent “somewhat” concerned. A grand total of 4 percent believe “personal information on the Internet is secure.” Such fears pose delicate problems for marketers, because the public realizes they have something in common with info-age crooks: Each seeks to know more about consumers than consumers want known.

vices: Less-Than-Innocent Youth
No wonder teenage crime is down: The kids are too busy drinking, smoking and ingesting drugs. The federal government’s interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics came out this month with its fourth annual report, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2000. Despite progress in some areas, many of the statistics are hair-raising. The report says the incidence of heavy drinking by adolescents “has been stable over the past few years,” but the chart shows it’s stable at a high level. As for illicit drugs, the 1999 data showed 12 percent of eighth-graders, 22 percent of 10th-graders and 26 percent of 12th-graders had indulged in the 30 days before being polled. For the two younger cohorts, that’s down from the worst phase of the mid-’90s–but it’s double the rate of 1991. Incidence of smoking was also higher at the end of the decade than at the beginning: 1999 data showed 8 percent of eighth-graders, 16 percent of 10th-graders and 23 percent of 12-graders smoked “daily” in the 30 days prior to being queried.

read on: These Are a Few of Our Favorite Free-Time Things
Conventional wisdom says Americans are a bunch of aliterate couch potatoes. But new evidence, in the form of a Harris poll, says otherwise. It turns out we’re a bunch of literate couch potatoes. Asked to name their “two or three most favorite leisure-time activities,” respondents put reading (selected by 31 percent) and TV viewing (23 percent) atop the list. They may not be reading deathless literature, but at least Americans haven’t abandoned the printed page. Third place went to “spending time with family/kids” (14 percent). The catchall category of “computer activities” posted a steep gain since a 1995 poll, climbing from 2 percent then to 6 percent now. (Only exercise rose as sharply.) But it still trails such traditional pastimes as gardening (13 percent), fishing (9 percent) and walking (8 percent). The dog that didn’t bark in this survey is shopping: A mere 3 percent of respondents picked it as one of their free-time faves. Has a leisure drought forced Americans to cram these activities into fewer hours? In fact, Harris polling on this topic shows remarkable stability over the past two decades. In nine of 11 surveys conducted since 1980, respondents’ weekly leisure hours have averaged either 19 or 20. (This year’s answer was 20 hours.) The sole exceptions were 1984 (18 hours) and 1987 (17 hours).

hmos, heal thyselves: Rating the Institutions
What a boon HMOs have been to other widely disliked institutions in this country. Whenever a survey invites respondents to assess important players, the other objects of distaste can count on HMOs to get the worst grades. Such is the case in a new Gallup Poll. Sure, 30 percent of respondents expressed “little confidence” in the criminal justice system; just 9 percent have “a great deal of confidence” in big business. But those losers could take solace in the fact that only 6 percent had great confidence in HMOs, while 38 percent had very little. At the other end of the scale, respondents gave the highest average score to the military, in which 25 percent have a great deal of confidence and 39 percent have quite a lot. It was also the only item on Gallup’s list for which the “very little confidence” tally was in single digits (7 percent). The church/organized religion ranked second overall, with 28 percent according it a great deal of confidence and 28 percent voicing quite a lot. Banks scored fairly well, with 46 percent of respondents rating it on the positive end of the scale. Newspapers and TV news fared less well, with positive totals of 37 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

mixed blessings: Paint vs. Gore vs. Bush, Give Asphalt a Chance, Etc.
Some humiliating news for marketers of paint: Given a choice between watching paint dry and watching the two leading presidential candidates on television, respondents to a poll for The Hotline ranked paint dead last. Thirty-five percent would watch George W. Bush and 29 percent would watch Al Gore, while a lackluster total of 23 percent would prefer to watch paint dry. Of course, these partisans of paint could emerge as a battleground constituency as the electoral campaign goes on. Elsewhere on the presidential-opinion front, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asked respondents whether Bush or Gore “would win the most money on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Thirty-nine percent picked Gore; 35 percent favored Bush. But people felt Bush had a better chance of winning the Survivor jackpot: 43 percent thought Gore would “be kicked off the island first”; 33 percent thought Bush would be first off.

Given the antipathy drivers feel toward parking signs, is it wise to make them the medium for your sales pitch? It is if you aim to rebrand a stretch of urban boulevard as Eat Street. That’s what Minneapolis is trying to do for a 17-block “designated restaurant district.” Another ad in the series (via Gabriel Diericks Razidlo of that city) has a sign marking a “Casserole Free Zone.” (But casseroles can be delicious!) Yet another shows a slice of white bread in a circle with the international don’t-do-it slash running across it.

For connoisseurs of gender gaps, here’s an odd one discovered by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle. When a couple has a first child, the father works longer hours than he did before. But the average additional time worked per year after the birth of a first son (84 hours) is more than double the extra work time after a daughter is born (31 hours.)

If an Arizona asphalt company doesn’t raise the hackles of earth-firsters, it won’t be for lack of trying. In addition to disparaging the road less traveled, clever billboards for the pavement company unapologetically exalt asphalt at the expense of nature. One shows a spectacular vista alongside the headline, “Coming to a pristine landscape near you.” Another remarks that “Parks are so overrated.” Not content to offend those who worship nature, the campaign also risks rubbing Catholics the wrong way with a billboard that shows Pope John Paul II kissing the ground as a headline proclaims, “We feel the same way.” The Phoenix outpost of Cramer-Krasselt created the series.

Are they more apt to be rude than folks who live elsewhere? Responding to a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll of people in New Jersey, 42 percent conceded the truth of that view. But as tends to happen when people are invited to compare themselves to others, the poll also found majorities of respondents attributing superior virtue to denizens of the Garden State: 77 percent felt the term “hardworking” fits Jerseyans better than non-Jerseyans; 66 percent felt the same about “smart”; and 61 percent said Jerseyans are more apt to be “fair-minded” than people from other locales.

In an economy that makes people feel entitled to suit themselves, we needn’t be surprised if car buyers believe off-the-shelf models just won’t do. A study by J.D. Power and Associates found 16 percent of consumers would have their next vehicle built to order (BTO) “if the price was comparable to a similar vehicle on a dealer’s lot and could be delivered in eight weeks or less.” About 7 percent of new-vehicle purchasers bought BTO models last year. This trend dovetails with the rising interest in buying cars online–a method, the research firm predicts, that could account for 15 percent of vehicle sales by 2004.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that notions about marriage have shifted since Jane Austen’s day. A Glamour poll found evidence of this when it asked, “When it comes to status, looks and money, what league of man should a woman marry?” Sixty-nine percent recommended “a man on her level, careerwise and lookswise”; 13 percent pointed to “a wealthier, more attractive man”; and another 13 percent said a woman should set her sights on “a man who is less accomplished than she is–but who totally idolizes the goddess in her.