Too often, the research finds popular trends are nothing more than media hype.
But in the 1993 survey of 4,000 U.S. adult heads of households, exclusive to Advertising Age, a thread of consistency appears throughout the several hundred pages of data: There's a growing pattern of skepticism and frustration among Americans.
DDB Needham's sweeping, on-going study of who we are, how we live and what we think paints a picture of a consumer ever more at odds with authority, big business, politicians and ad claims.
"There is a general theme emerging, isolation," says Martin Horn, the VP-associate director of strategic planning and research who oversees the study for the agency's Chicago office. "People are feeling alienated."
It's not hard to see why-just scan the local newspaper or evening news program. The endless barrage of reports on random crime, gang warfare, political scandals, military strife and natural disasters is sufficient to harden hearts and solidify fears.
But those aren't the only reasons Americans are frustrated. U.S. consumers are fed up with institutions because institutions have let them down. For example:
Politics: In previous post-election years, survey respondents gave first-year presidents the benefit of doubt. Now they just doubt.
A record percentage of men feel an honest man cannot get elected to high office: 55% in 1993, up from 49% in 1992 (women are steady at about 46%). Mr. Horn says the increase is startling because it indicates men in particular are unwilling to cut newly elected officials any slack.
The agency's previous studies found the public permitted grace periods for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, and that those periods ended mid-term for both. President Reagan's re-election and the election of George Bush did not have as dramatic an effect on the perceived honesty of politicians. But, points out Mr. Horn, "President Clinton's election produced no honeymoon at all."
Big business: About 75% of respondents think most big companies are out for themselves. "The Exxon Valdez spill, s&l scandals, Wall Street scandals. We haven't recovered. There's all this latent mistrust that's suddenly been rekindled," says Mr. Horn.
Financial optimism: Consumers are sensitive to the "ebb and flow of the economy," as Mr. Horn puts it. The 1993 survey shows respondents are suffering from a personal economic malaise: The number of people who feel their family income is high enough to satisfy all their important desires continues to slide. In 1976, for example, 75% of men and women felt their income was high enough, compared to 64% of men and 65% of women in 1993.
Looking at the same period, the number of people who feel their family is too heavily in debt has increased as well, from 23% of men and 25% of women in 1976 to 38% of men and 36% of women in 1993.
Religion: Many trend watchers, advertisers and media companies believe religion is on the comeback. But while a majority of people say religion is important to them, those numbers are slowly declining. According to DDB Needham's survey, 66% of men and 81% of women said religion was important to them in 1985, vs. 60% of men and 76% of women last year.
Jobs: A record number of respondents believe it is hard to get a good job these days. In 1988, just over 65% of respondents to the DDB Needham study felt good jobs were hard to find. In 1993, it's closer to 85%.
TV: There is too much violence on prime-time TV, according to respondents: 82% of men and 90% of women in 1993 vs. 75% of men and 88% of women in 1985. And 76% of men and 88% of women feel there is too much sex on TV, up from 69% of men and 84% of women in 1985.
Running contrary to the general mistrust of institutions, 38% of men and 41% of women feel the government should intervene by exercising control over what is shown on TV. Compare that to eight years ago, when 29% of men and 34% of women supported government intervention.
(Footnote to advertisers: 80% of men and 89% of women feel TV commercials place too much emphasis on sex, too.)
Personal malaise: A slowly growing majority say that if they had their lives to live over again, they would do things differently. And 37% of men and 33% of women would choose to do something entirely different with their lives if they could.
On a more positive note, the survey found 71% of men and 73% of women say they are very satisfied with the way things are going in their lives.
If the 1980s was the decade of greed, the 1990s is becoming the decade of doubt. Such consumer skepticism isn't lost on marketers. Many are trying to steer consumers their way by establishing trust or friendliness in an increasingly mistrustful, unfriendly world.
"Everybody, even the health & beauty aids companies, is trying to promote the idea of trust and credibility and guarantee," says Allison Cohen, president of PeopleTalk, a New York-based focus group researcher that serves ad agencies and marketers. "They're standing behind their products."
Colgate-Palmolive Co., among other companies, is trumpeting money-back guarantees in ads. Nike is running testimonial ad campaigns in which loyal consumers laud its products. Chrysler Corp. is trying to create a warm and friendly persona for Neon by using the printed word "Hi!" in all advertising. Recognizing that people trust each other perhaps more than institutions, TV spots for Coldwell Banker show how the company's real estate brokers are recommended from one customer to the next.
One of the most poignant attempts at cutting through mistrust comes from John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. Consistent with its nearly 10-year-old ad theme, "Real Life, Real Issues," a Hancock TV spot that began airing in February breaks a taboo not just of advertising but of society in general: it talks candidly about death and terminal illness.
"Everyone knows why you buy life insurance, but to deal with it in an ad?" says Kathleen Driscoll, who as VP-corporate communications oversees Hancock's advertising and PR. "Very few insurance companies are going to talk about death, period. "
The spot, by Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, shows a terminally ill father discussing the family's financial situation with his son. Tormented by grief, the son cries while his father describes how his own medical bills and the son's college tuition will be taken care of.
"In the research we see, consumers are more skeptical than ever. They want to be dealt with honestly," Ms. Driscoll says.
According to DDB Needham's study, consumers also are growing more skeptical of "healthful" food claims.
DDB Needham's survey indicates the number of people concerned about fiber, sugar and salt intake and cholesterol has decreased. The number of people dieting to lose weight also is down, according to the survey.
"People were inundated with information about what was good and bad for them in the '80s and early '90s," Mr. Horn says. "It was information overload and a lot of it was contradictory. People finally said, `I give up. I cannot live up to all this stuff.'*"
Americans themselves are proving this point by once again consuming many of the products they had been avoiding for years. Fatty foods like pork, beef and salty snacks are enjoying a widening of the sales belt. Several studies show the decline in cigarette smoking has plateaued or reversed. Per capita consumption of soft drinks is up, to 48.9 gallons in 1993 from 48 gallons the year before, according to Wheat, First Securities.
Some researchers believe U.S. dieting trends never really changed in the first place.
"People are just more honest now," says Harry Balzer, VP at NPD Group. "Their attitudes may have changed, but their behavior didn't."
According to NPD, a Park Ridge, Ill.-based research company that tracks what consumers eat as well as how they feel about what they eat, eight of the top 10 lunch and dinner entrees from 1983 remained in the top 10 in 1993: pizza, ham sandwiches, hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, steak, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese and cheese sandwiches. Turkey sandwiches and spaghetti last year replaced bologna and hamburger patties.
To meet the indulgence trend, DDB Needham is running ads for General Mills' Betty Crocker cake mixes that focus on the pleasurable, celebratory aspects of cake rather than tout a low-fat variety.
"The core of the problem is trust," says Mr. Horn. "It's one of the reasons people are not as brand loyal. They think they've been charged a premium for something they now can get for less."
Consumers' mistrust of institutions has helped the phenomenal growth of private-label brands, which accounted for 19.7% of supermarket unit market share in 1993, according to Information Resources Inc.
That figure is an increase from 19.4% in 1992 and just 16.4% in 1989.
Eighteen years ago, when DDB Needham first started the Life Style survey, nearly three-fourths of respondents said they were sticking with well-known brand names. In 1993, 58% of women and 62% of men said so.
Price remains important: for 15 years, the number of women (the primary grocery shoppers) who say they always check prices, even on small items, has remained high in the 80%-85% range. Impulse buying is down to 30% of women, compared to 36% in 1992.
The survey found nearly 100% of women said they used a "price-off" coupon at a grocery store in 1993. And heavy use of such coupons-i.e. more than 52 times a year-grew to 45% of women, the study found.
The economy and improvements in the quality of store labels have fueled the growth of such products, but national brands may not be as bad off as some experts claim.
"Even as store brands gain momentum, the proportion of consumers who say that store brands are a better buy than nationally advertised brands is actually a bit lower today than it was at the start of the '80s," Mr. Horn says. And the proportion of consumers who say they stick to well-known brands is about the same today as it was 10 years ago.
But brands are institutions and, as the survey shows, consumers are increasingly mistrustful of institutions. "The question for consumers is: `Do you trust this brand to deliver something, that it offers an advantage?"' says Mr. Horn. "The answer used to be yes. Now it's a maybe or a no."