Mark Dolliver’s Takes

Success and failure: Lean Times for the Half-Hearted Weight Watcher
In the back of our minds, we always calculate a ratio between our own failings and those of society in general. If the country is going to hell in a handbasket, our personal shortcomings can seem acceptably–even admirably–minor. For many Americans, the ratio has taken a turn for the worse in this decade as indices of social dysfunction have declined. This thought is brought to mind by a study, newly reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, on people’s inability to control their weight. More than two-thirds of American adults are trying to lose weight or to keep it in check, the article reports, but median poundage keeps rising. And no wonder, since “many do not follow guidelines recommending a combination of fewer calories and more exercise.” This is a bit like hearing that people are trying to catch an airline flight but are neglecting to go to the airport. Because it’s visible in a way that our other failings generally are not, weight is an angst-ridden topic in the best of times (which, for purposes of this discussion, are the worst of times). How much more
vexing it must be in the gilded ’90s. One can imagine the internal monologue: “Crime is down, teen pregnancy is down, unemployment is down, welfare dependency is down, we’ve won the Cold War–but I’m still 14 pounds overweight!” This won’t be as distressing once the Dow has lost a few thousand points and crime has picked up again. In the meantime, though, national success at reducing once-insoluble problems will stand as a reproach to individuals who merely give the old college try to correcting their own lapses.
bare facts: This Week’s Nudity Item
If an ad for Nike sneakers showed a pair of bare feet, it would pass without comment. No such luck when an ad for Nike sports bras shows a pair of bare breasts. (That, ladies and gentlemen, is the key difference between breasts and feet.) Prompted by the campaign, the Web site conducted an online poll in which readers were invited to comment on the ads and on nudity in advertising as a general phenomenon. With electronic turnout at 5,500-plus votes and counting, 63 percent of participants thought Nike was right “to make several different versions of the ad”–including one for the eyes of impressionable teen-magazine readers in which the model’s nipples are concealed by strands of her long hair. As you can see from the chart, a majority look askance at nudity in ads. At least, they look askance at advertisers’ motives. Asked whether they wonder “what all the fuss is about,” 62 percent answered with a firm “no.”
The online hearth: The Family That Logs On Together Stays Together
If Norman Rockwell were still around, he’d be painting heart-warming pictures of the family gathered around its home computer. In his absence, we’ll make do with a study by Greenfield Online on ways in which the Internet “is changing practically every routine of typical family life.” According to the Westport, Conn.-based research firm, “71 percent of adults with Internet access are logging on when they get home from work and a fourth ‘stay online all evening.’ ” While half of the respondents say they’re watching less television, “52 percent say they watch TV while they are online.” But grown-ups aren’t hogging the computer. Three-fourths of kids in online families have access to the Web, “and by age 11, 55 percent of parents in the study allow kids to go online whenever they feel like it.” Indeed, a quarter of the kids who are granted Internet access “are permitted to make purchases online.”
sick of the web: Take Two Aspirins And Turn Off Your PC
We’ve all been told that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now it turns out that a lot of knowledge–a whole Internet full of it–is also dangerous to people who don’t know how to digest it. No, we’re not talking about online investing, though that example might serve as well. The text for today’s sermonette is a piece by NBC News science reporter Robert Bazell. Published on the MSNBC Web site, the item deals with “cyberchondria”–the hypochondria that’s becoming more and more common as laymen surf through medical Web sites and decide they have one fatal disease or another. Bazell cites the case of a “perfectly healthy” woman “who convinced herself she had multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease–along with many other imagined maladies.” And he quotes a physician who sees patients coming in with “presumptive diagnoses” based on “bits and pieces of information that they didn’t seem to have access to in the past.” Another doctor expects 35 million Americans to access Web health information (or misinformation) in the next year. Needless to say, the cyberchondria epidemic could spawn an online cottage industry of its own–say, Internet sites designed to reassure people they’re not dying even if they do have one or two symptoms of something dreadful.
Mixed Blessings: Disposable Incomes, Disposable Cameras, Etc.
Bad news for marketers: People are paying off their student loans. A bulletin from the Department of Education says the federal student loan program’s default rate has fallen to its lowest level ever–8.8 percent, if you’re keeping score at home. In contrast, the rate stood at a high of 22.4 percent in 1990. On the plus side, the feds attribute the decline partly to the booming economy, which is a good thing for marketers. But they also laud their own “commitment and vigilance” in keeping would-be deadbeats in line. Thus, money that might otherwise be spent on pizzas, CD players and lavish vacations is going to pay off debts. Bummer.
It’s one of those little unwritten rules of the ad biz: Don’t imply that the person who bought the client’s product has just been eaten by a shark. Then again, there’s the popular modern rule that says, “Rules are made to be broken.” A Canadian ad for the Kodak Max disposable camera breaks the first and abides by the second to stress that the product goes “anywhere you go. And some places you shouldn’t.” We also gather it’s (a) sturdier than a surfboard or (b) less appetizing to sharks–an advantage in either case. The idea is that you can take this disposable camera along on occasions when you wouldn’t care to risk your “real” camera. Ogilvy & Mather’s Toronto office created the piece.
Can there be a man, woman or child in America who hasn’t heard enough about Hillary Clinton to have an opinion of her? In fact, there are a fair number of them, at least in New York state. A Quinnipiac College Poll among registered voters there found 8 percent “haven’t heard enough about her” to have formed a favorable, unfavorable or mixed opinion. It’s a useful reminder that nontrivial numbers of people lead their lives in happy disregard of the issues and personalities that preoccupy the news media.
Amid the ’90s mania for luxury goods, people who once would have been satisfied with leather from any old country can be egged on to demand the Italian variety. An ad by New York agency Burkhardt & Hillman deftly capitalizes on the spirit of the times, establishing Cortina’s provenance by extruding the leather from a pasta machine. Makes you want to buy a nice leather pouch for carrying home fresh linguini, doesn’t it?
Why do people start smoking? An online poll on the Parent Soup Web site posed that question to current and former smokers. A plurality (41.3 percent) said they started because they “thought it was cool,” while 25.6 percent did so out of “curiosity.” That notorious evil “peer-group pressure” accounted for just 19.5 percent, and 13.6 percent cited the fact that their parents smoked.
It’s not just the mother of invention. Necessity is also the improver of ad categories. Employers are scrambling these days to fill jobs, and recruitment ads are livelier than ever. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that high-tech companies pride themselves on being offbeat. The ad below, created by TDA Advertising & Design of Longmont, Colo., offers a good example of the new-and-improved genre.
Plan? What Plan? Finding What Counts For Small Businesses
Computers are all well and good, but they don’t quite measure up to fax machines. A study of small companies by research firm Willard & Shullman of Greenwich, Conn., found 82 percent of owners saying they depend on the fax, while 71 percent said as much of computers. As for the Internet, it’s not as indispensable as you might suppose. In fact, 28 percent of respondents aren’t yet using it in their business, and 14 percent have no immediate plan to do so.
At this point, 54 percent go online to get business information, according to the study, as reported by the Associated Press and summarized on the World Opinion Web site. By 2001, the same number expect to be using the Internet for advertising and promotion, while 41 percent will use it to sell products and services and 38 percent to find suppliers and make purchases. Even in the information age, word-of-mouth and referrals constitute the “primary sales and marketing channel” for small businesses, with 61 percent terming it their “most successful channel.” By comparison, just 19 percent accorded that rank to the Web.
Elsewhere in the study, 41 percent of the respondents said they “actually had an annual business plan,” which means an awful lot of small companies are making it up as they go along. It’s a tribute to the powers of improvisation, then, that a small majority of owners (52 percent) could report their businesses were profitable last year, versus 26 percent conceding they lost money.
drive time: Just Pile These Statistics Into Your Pickup Truck
You’d think we were a nation of ranchers. According to a new report from the Census Bureau, there was “approximately one registered pickup truck for every five licensed drivers” in the U.S. by the end of 1997. (The meticulous Census folks will have this year’s figure sometime in the next millennium.) That far exceeded the rate of SUV ownership: one sport-utility vehicle for every 13 licensed drivers. But SUVs were the fastest-growing category, with registrations nearly doubling between 1992 and 1997 and tripling since 1987. Pickup registrations rose just 8 percent during the same period. Meanwhile, don’t think of minivans as a phenomenon of the ’80s. Their numbers grew 61 percent during 1992-97. Among other tidbits from the report: “About 70 percent of all registered trucks were used for personal transportation, while 28 percent were operated for business, including for-hire use.” About 26 percent of small trucks had airbags. And for those of you who are connoisseurs of “HAZMAT” signs along the highway, “Approximately 7 percent of all large trucks carried
hazardous materials at some time in 1997.”
assigning blame: I’d Walk a Mile For a Poll on Smoking
If cigarette smokers had it to do all over again, would they pick up the habit again? When Gallup put that question to current smokers, 85 percent said they would not. But an incorrigible 13 percent–the same figure as in a 1990 poll–would light up anew. Amid the debate about tobacco’s addictive properties, that finding points to the often-ignored fact that some people smoke because they really, really like to. Nonetheless, the vast majority of smokers (76 percent) answered “yes” when asked whether they’d like to give up smoking. Sixty-five percent said they’ve made a “really serious effort” to do so.
And who’s to blame for the ills cigarettes cause? Anti-smoking activists derive much fun and profit from attacking the tobacco industry as the root of all evil. But that view commands relatively little support. As you can see from the chart, nearly one-quarter of respondents hold smokers completely to blame for the consequences of their habit, while about one in 10 say tobacco companies merit all the blame.
The issue of second-hand smoke has given great impetus to the anti-smoking movement, but public opinion about it is volatile. Forty-three percent of respondents (including smokers and nonsmokers) now believe such smoke is “very harmful”–down from 55 percent last year but up from 36 percent in 1994. The number who think it’s “not at all harmful” or “not too harmful” has varied in a narrow band, from 18 percent in 1994 to 16 percent this year.
Dear Congressman: Casting a Notional Vote For Civic Participation
Fortunately, nobody ever said that telling the truth to pollsters is a crucial civic virtue. A CBS News poll on people’s level of political involvement gathers a number of intriguing tidbits. Still, the main moral may be that people would rather tell a fib than admit to political passivity. Given the dwindling number who read the newspaper each day, one can’t help wondering whether 13 percent of Americans have expressed their views to an editor. Similarly, the number who claim to have contacted a member of Congress is remarkably high when compared to the number who cast a ballot to choose that member. If people are overstating their level of political activity, it’s all the more striking in the context of their doubts about the utility of politics. Even among those classified as politically active, just 33 percent say government has a “positive impact” on their lives–though 82 percent believe government does have the potential to exert a positive impact.
A dose of data: Taking the Prescription But Shirking the Drug
The fact that a drug has been prescribed doesn’t necessarily mean the patient is taking it. A study conducted by Harris Interactive among 10,000 people with chronic ailments finds “non-compliance”–i.e., failure to take a prescribed medicine as directed–is “rampant.” In fact, just 43 percent “have taken them properly, as prescribed by their doctor, for the past
12 months.” Compliance varies by disease. It’s highest among those with diabetes
(50 percent) and hypertension (49 percent), lowest among those with depression and migraines (both 28 percent). Insurance is another variable, especially among seniors. Among those age 65-plus who don’t have drug coverage, 52 percent “have in some way reduced their drug use,” versus 30 percent of those who do have coverage