DECODING THE POLLS: We’re Not Above a Little Perjury Ourselves In opinion polling, the margin of error relates to sample size. But pollsters could as usefully adjust it to reflect how much a question asks people to reveal about themselves, particularly where charged matters like sex and class are concerned. For instance, if you polled every man, woman and child in America about the Clinton-Lewinsky case, the margin of error would be zero in conventional terms. But you’d still only know what people say, which may or may not correspond closely to what they believe-if they even know what they believe. To get to the bottom of people’s views on such a topic, you’d have to put them in analysis for a year, not pose a few questions over the phone. And that brings us to the moral of today’s story: One useful lesson of this whole affair (or nonaffair, as the case may be) is that we need to bring a cautious and inquisitive eye to opinion-survey results. It’s not that surveys don’t tell us interesting things. Quite the contrary. It’s that they sometimes tell us far more than meets the eye. People have their own agendas when they answer a pollster’s question, and telling the simple truth may not be at the top of the list. But the more evasive or self-contradictory they are, the more people say about themselves-if we’re listening carefully. SODA AND MORE SODA: Can’t Say We Aren’t An Effervescent Bunch No wonder we see soda cans strewn all over the landscape. Research by The NPD Group puts carbonated soft drinks atop a list of “Fastest Growing Foods in the American Diet.” In fact, it puts soft drinks atop two lists-one tracking in-home meals and the other covering restaurant meals. According to the Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm, the average American consumed soft drinks 102 times last year-up from a mere 83 times in 1990, the base year for the study. That’s four times the rate of increase of any other item. Among solid foods posting big gains on the home front: pre-sweetened cereals, bagels, toaster pastries and pizza. On the rise at restaurants: tap water (not covered in the at-home data), french fries, Mexican food and hamburgers. OFF THE LOT: Why Kick the Tires When You Can Just Kick Your Computer? Most consumers still need to drive a car around the block before they’ll buy it. But a survey by The Dohring Co. finds that a growing minority of them are willing to buy a car over the Internet. Ten percent of respondents fell into that category-up sharply from the 4 percent doing so in polling conducted a year earlier. In part, the increase reflects the proliferation of Internet access. The Glendale, Calif.-based research firm notes that 44 percent of potential car buyers are now wired. BLAND AMBITION? Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way (Maybe) Looking at this pair of charts, drawn from Yankelovich Partners polling, some readers will be heartened by evidence that Gen Xers are so entrepreneurial. Others, though, will fault Xers for letting their ambitions run in such prosaic channels, even as a higher percentage of Boomers muse about inheriting vast estates and leading lives of leisure. Can it be that Xers are slackers when it comes to daydreaming? SURVIVORS: At Last, A Gender Gap That American Women Can Live With No wonder March feels so festive: It’s Women’s History Month! Duly inspired, the Census Bureau has assembled a batch of data about American women. For one thing, it notes the female skew of the nation’s elderly. Among people age 65 and over, women outnumber men by a margin of 6 million (i.e., 20.1 million women versus 14.1 million men). Among those 85 and older, 2.8 million are women and 1.1 million are men. One way of looking at such numbers: Marketing to the elderly is mainly a subset of marketing to women. A HUNTER’S MARKET: Adding Up Adweek’s Classified Ads for Jobs To judge by the volume of classified ads running in Adweek, the market for jobs in advertising, marketing and media isn’t slackening in 1998. If job hunters can’t find work in this environment, they must be wondering whether they’re in the wrong business-or at least in the wrong part of it. The year-to-year gains are all the more striking when you note that 1997 got off to a blockbuster start, too. MIXED BLESSINGS: Professions of Faith, Death-Row Humor, Etc. For anyone who’s nosy, Ash Wednesday is a godsend. All at once, a bunch of your office colleagues (as well as neighbors, aerobics classmates and so on) reveal themselves as serious churchgoers. You don’t have to ask any intrusive questions. All you need do is look for that telltale smudge on the forehead. Best of all, there are always surprises. Every year on Ash Wednesday, you find this declaration of faith on people you’d have picked as the sort who wouldn’t be caught dead in a church. Among strangers on the street, you see it on people whose mode of dress would lead you to expect nothing so unworldly. Thus, the day serves as a reminder that religious faith remains a largely unseen phenomenon, even amid the religious revival now afoot in this country. That is, unless you’re part of the churchgoing contingent yourself, it’s easy to be oblivious to the role religion plays in the lives of people-including your own acquaintances. You know whether a colleague smokes, watches Seinfeld, eats sushi, can’t stand Robin Williams, wears Dockers on Casual Friday. You’re less likely to know whether he or she is religious. As the separation of church and state has evolved into a separation of church and culture, the topic just doesn’t come up. If you can’t joke about capital punishment, what can you joke about? A lesser industry might feel restrained by all the sober attention paid to the recent execution of Karla Faye Tucker. Not so the ad biz. Thus, we find a new spot in which an electrical utility, Turlock Irrigation District, employs the theme of execution by electric chair. Actually, the spot is quite funny. We see Johnny, the condemned man, being led to the chair by the somber warden, pious chaplain and gleeful guard. Asked whether he has any last words, Johnny responds: “Now that Californians will be getting a choice in their electric service, I strongly advise shopping around.” To emphasize the point, he laughs demonically. The guard then mentions that the prison itself switched electric companies a week ago. As he pulls the lever to electrocute Johnny, sparks come shooting out of the control panel and the whole prison goes dark. “Cool,” declares the unfried Johnny. A voiceover then urges consumers to “choose wisely” among electric utilities. San Francisco agency Katsin/Loeb created the spot, with Marty Weiss as the director and Pavlov Productions as the production company. Back in some nearly forgotten golden age, colleges might have summoned prospective students to the life of the mind. No more. Nowadays, there’s scarcely a pretense that people seek education for any reason other than to increase their future paychecks. So we can’t quibble with a campaign in which Holy Names college gets specific about the motivating power of money. “The golf. The travel. The winter home,” says one ad (shown here), enumerating the ways in which parents are frittering away their kids’ inheritance. “At the rate they’re spending, you may need a Plan B after all.” In a similarly mercenary vein, another ad in the series shows a popping champagne cork next to a headline that says: “Even if you marry rich, the divorce rate is still 50%.” Good point. The Winkler agency of San Francisco created the series for the Oakland, Calif.-based college. Honors for the Best Alfalfa Mustache of the Week go to American Cyanamid for an ad promoting its Pursuit herbicide. The ad’s target audience consists of alfalfa growers who sell feed to dairy farms, so we presume they’re receptive to bovine humor. In any case, connoisseurs of lactocentric advertising will note that Pursuit pays homage to the “Got milk?” series for California’s milk producers and the milk-mustache campaign for the commodity’s national promotion board. Miller Meester of Minneapolis created the clever ad. Evidently computer literacy is no guarantee of proficiency in math and science. You may have seen reports in the paper last week of yet another study showing that American high school students rank near the bottom of the developed-world standings in tests in these subjects. Meanwhile, a Roper Starch study finds American teenagers half again as likely as a sampling of global teens to have used a computer in the past month. I guess our kids weren’t using the machines to crack Fermat’s theorem.