Ours has become an information-driven nation with an insatiable thirst to quantify, qualify and categorize. From income levels to buying habits, today's cultural anthropologists provide torrents of data that presume to reflect social and economic trends. And advertising and marketing people spend a lot of time and money trying to find the forest among the trees.
Though not quantitative or expensive like most of the research we use, Yellow Pages subject headings can add a touch of confidence to gut-level perceptions.
For instance, the rise in transient, single-parent dual-income families is well documented. But a look in the Yellow Pages gets behind the numbers that show Americans are not spending as much time caring directly for children and old folks. There are many more listings today for daycare centers, elder care, divorce lawyers, mediation services, moving companies and truck rentals than there were a few years ago. It's clear that Americans are more mobile as we chase careers and end marriages.
Demographic studies show that baby boomers, as they get grayer, are more concerned about health. Yellow Pages headings cast a clearer, gut-level picture. As more families are faced with caring for elderly relatives, there has been an exceptional growth in listings for supervised care under headings like "Retirement Communities" and "Residential Care Homes." Evidently "Nursing Homes" are out.
There is also a strong interest in back-to-nature, grass-roots health and medicine, indicating a change in the way we look at our mental and physical condition. Note the huge increase in such non-traditional headings as "Acupuncture," "Oriental Medicine," "Eating Disorder Treatment," "Mammography" and "Naturopaths."
There is also growth in headings for drug testing, rehabilitation and numerous sorts of help for physical abuse and substance abuse, a significant indication of a greater willingness to recognize and face problems, and to solve them with new methods.
In the business area, our move toward an information-based service economy has led to a proliferation of professional specialists. The heading "Consultants" first appeared about seven years ago as businesses downsized and farmed out work that was traditionally done in-house. There are now numerous sub categories like "Auto Purchasing Consultants" and "Wetlands Consultants."
The computer industry wasn't even a stand-alone Yellow Pages heading 20 years ago. But in the mid-70s Computers finally broke apart from "Office Products" and has now grown to more than 20 individual headings.
Yellow Pages publishers are very sensitive to the development of new industries, and the emergence of industries within industries. Watching how they add and divide categories can help advertisers learn what's really going on in the world of commerce.
Mr. Hess is director of the American Enterprise Program and professor of marketing and international business in the College of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder.