Americans in the mid-1990s, the study shows, want to eat what they want, when they want it; dress for comfort rather than style or fashion dictates; and embrace traditional values only as long as they don't interfere with convenience, practicality or individualism.
"We're seeing a trade-off between the ideal and the pragmatic," said Martin Horn, senior VP-group director, strategic planning and research, in the Chicago office of DDB Needham Worldwide.
"`How much am I willing to sacrifice to get what I'm after?' That's not to say we're going back to the `me' generation-that's too simplistic a notion of how the world works. But things tend to go in cycles. And now the trend seems to be to be true to thyself first."
The DDB Needham study, now in its 22nd year, is based on a survey mailed to 4,000 households early this year. Adult heads of household were asked 1,000 questions on a range of subjects, including activities, media habits, purchase patterns and social attitudes; the margin of error is 1.5 percentage points. The results, reported exclusively in Advertising Age, paint a broad-brush self-portrait of the U.S.
A look at long-term responses reveals a definite move toward individualism.
"The pendulum is definitely swinging toward satisfying one's self rather than following social dictates," Mr. Horn said. "It's not strictly either/or, but a matter of emphasis."
Some examples from this year's survey:
Healthful eating. No thanks, say consumers. After years of being told to eat more of this and less of that, people are paying less attention to nutrition and diet mandates.
Since 1988, the percentage of men and women who make special efforts to boost fiber or vitamin intake, or cut additives, cholesterol, salt and sugar, has fallen rapidly.
In 1989, for example, 64% of men said they were cutting back on high-cholesterol foods. Today, that figure has dropped to 56%. Likewise, since '89, the percentage of women who are trying to eat high-fiber foods fell from 61% to 51%.
"Food companies operate on the assumption that there is a higher sensitivity to these issues than seems to be the case," Mr. Horn said. "In the final analysis, [a food's] being healthy to eat is nice, but what kind of appetite appeal does it have?"
A majority of men (58%) and women (79%) say they enjoy cooking. But for both sexes, the key words are "quick" and "easy." A majority-64% of women and 52% of men-say meal preparation "should take as little time as possible." Today, 37% of women and 25% of men feel guilty serving convenience foods, down from 43% and 27%, respectively, in the late '70s.
Exercise. Although more than half of Americans (58% of men and 52% of women) think they're still in good physical condition, that percentage has fallen steadily since the mid-'70s, when it was about 75%. And there's little indication most people are doing much about it. Most forms of exercise have declined as regular activities.
Fashion. Reflective of the attitude that has made "office casual" a weekly staple of the U.S. wardrobe, the study suggests that the collective mood is leaning toward comfort over fashion.
The percentage of men who say dressing well is important to their lives has fallen from 70% in 1973 to 53% today. For women the figure has fallen from 80% to 63%.
Political/social attitudes. Pocketbook pragmatism and a desire to hold onto creature comforts have in some cases reshaped personal ideals.
In 1988, for example, roughly 70% of men and women said they would support pollution standards "even if it means shutting down some factories." Today, 65% of women still agree with that statement, while among men the level has fallen to 60%.
Likewise, in 1979, 65% of women and 60% of men said they would accept a lower standard of living to conserve energy. Today only 43% of women and 37% of men would make the sacrifice. "The sentiment on these things is closely tied with the country's economic condition," Mr. Horn said.
Take the credo to "Buy American," for example. More than 80% of men and women today say "Americans should always try to buy American products, " reflecting a steady climb from 72% in 1975. The percentage who favor the government restricting imports, however, has fallen dramatically since the mid-'80s.
"Idealistically, we'd rather buy American than not," Mr. Horn said. "At the same time, there is the pragmatic knowledge that buying foreign often means decent quality at a good price. They're saying, `If I want to buy those Italian shoes or Russian vodka, I don't want anything to stop me from doing it."'
Likewise, the study suggests the fallacy of the concept that all Americans are embracing so-called "traditional values." More than 85% of men and women say they have "somewhat old-fashioned tastes and habits," yet the percentage of both men and women since the early '80s who say couples should live together before marrying is up, and support has grown for both legalized abortion and marijuana.
Advertising. On the advertising front, this year's study brought a mixed bag of results. The percentage of respondents who say "advertising insults my intelligence" has fallen from a peak of about 65% in `80 to around 50% now. At the same time, the percentage of men and women who said "advertising helps me make better buying decisions" has also declined.
In 1985, 74% of women and 70% of men saw utility in advertising; today that figure has fallen to 65% and 62%, respectively.
"Advertising has traditionally had two goals-win friends and influence people," Mr. Horn said. "At one point, we tried so hard to influence people that we weren't winning any friends. Now, we're winning friends, but not necessarily influencing people as well anymore.
"And while the other things are cyclical, this is a case where we're in control of our own destiny."