Behind the Looking Glass

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Trend observations from a long-time focus group moderator Qualitative research isn't typically thought of as a hotbed of emerging trends, but as Judith Langer discovered, it can be a barometer of what people are thinking. As a moderator of focus groups, Langer is more suited than most to take America's pulse and gauge where popular opinion is headed. Over the past 30 years, she has interviewed some 60,000 consumers, taking in their attitudes on subjects as diverse as vitamins, detergents, and wigs. Today, Langer is director of the newly-formed Roper/Langer Qualitative Division at Roper Starch Worldwide. Her observations are contained in a new book, The Mirrored Window: Focus Groups from a Moderator's Point of View (Paramount Market Publishing, 2001). What follows are a few of the trends Langer has identified in the publication, due out next month.

In On the Game Consumers know that they're being pitched to, which adds a layer of complexity to marketing efforts. This is a relatively new phenomenon. About five years ago, I started hearing respondents talk about positioning and asking who is the target audience for the product. Just because they know it's targeted marketing doesn't mean that they're turned off. In fact, there's a real difference today in consumer attitudes toward marketing and advertising. When I was doing research in the 1970s, I'd hear many people talk about how they hated advertising. Now most people accept it. As long as you're not treating them like idiots, people don't mind if you're selling to them. In fact, a lot of people like advertisements - if they're done well.

That's not to say that the backlash to commercialism is entirely dead. I recently saw a T-shirt in the window of an athletic footwear store that proudly pronounced, "Endorsed by nobody." At present, this backlash isn't strong, but it may well grow. If consumers are more aware today, they can also be surprisingly trusting. Some might even be called naive savants. They may say, on a general level, that the Internet has a lot of "garbage" information. Yet they believe what they see. In a study of automotive shopping, for instance, I found that people who did online research took the information at face value. They tended to ignore the company behind a Web site. On one car manufacturer's site, the statement that its vehicle was superior to others was not questioned, despite its obviously self-interested source.

Nostalgia for the 1990s? Nostalgia is a trend that's here to stay. For many of us, childhood is a period that we romanticize. This was not always the case. People who grew up during the Great Depression were less nostalgic about their childhood than those who grew up in more comfortable times. Moreover, it's hard to imagine that the 1980s will ever have a comeback like the 1960s has experienced. Why? Americans respond to the economy. Our outlooks and perceptions are linked to relative prosperity more than most of us would like to admit. This is one reason why Boomers are nostalgic for the 1950s, a time of prosperity when families stayed together, like it or not. Although many would not want to return to this confined lifestyle, they wistfully remember it as "simpler." The music and the stars of that period continue to have great vitality, not just with Boomers but with their children as well. Ironically, this nostalgia makes Boomers feel youthful, although their tenacity in hanging on to it reflects, at least in part, their fear of aging. GenXers and GenYs, born after the 1960s, are also nostalgic for the 1950s, as a symbol of freedom and fun. In time, of course, these younger generations will be nostalgic for their own "good old days." It seems likely that the late 1990s, the era of the bull market, will have its comeback in the future. And, looking ahead, the generation growing up now, in economic good times, will probably be nostalgic for their childhood.

Flexible Life Stages The life schedule people were expected to follow in the 1950s was clear: Get married following school (high school or college); have children starting in your 20s; if you are a woman, stop working once you have children; become an empty-nester in your 40s; retire in your 60s. Nowadays, this "predictable" life cycle seems scrambled. Imagine a room with four 38-year-old women: One has never had children; one just had her first child; another has a child in college; and the other is a grandmother. One stays home full-time; one works part-time; one works full-time and owns her own business; and one has returned to school for further education. One is married for the second time; one is living with her "significant other;" one is a single mother; and the fourth is unattached. Most surprising, none of these women is especially unusual. They experience a sense of freedom to live their own lives on their own schedule. If this sounds obvious to you, think of a client's request for a proposal which asks to study singles in their 20s, married people in their 30s, empty-nesters over age 45, and retired people over 55. The stereotyping has, unfortunately, outlived the reality.

Zigzagging Women Does this greater diversity mean that all the old pressures on women are gone? Absolutely not. The "shoulds" remain, and they are stronger in the more conservative areas of the country. The pressures come from society, family, and internally. In fact, because the rules have loosened, it can be more confusing deciding what's the right thing to do. The dilemma of choice replaces no choice. Mothers of young children still worry about making the right choice between staying home and getting a job outside the home that may entail day care. Today there are more choices - paid work; running a business from home; working part-time - but it's still a tough decision. On both sides of the stay-home decision, many women feel torn and criticized. Homemakers worry about being viewed as women who "just watch soap operas and eat bonbons" rather than bringing in income and developing their work talents. Women without children often debate whether to have a child. And, there are more choices - to have a child as a single woman with or without a male or female partner, to adopt, to go the route of surrogate birth, and so forth. They debate what's best for them personally and, of course, for the child.

Another way in which roles for women have zigzagged is in being a "sex object." During the 1960s, feminists resented this highly confining role. As many women moved into career positions, they were advised to play down their sexuality to be taken seriously - wear the "uniform" of a suit with the female version of a tie, exchange the pocketbook for a briefcase, and so on. Now, it seems, many women want to express their "femininity" by the way they dress. Tied in with the casual trend, many wear tight-and-slight outfits that draw attention to their bodies. There's the 21st century twist as women over 50 (years) and over 150 (pounds) go to work wearing midriff-bearing sleeveless tops with bra straps peeking through. The message: "I feel great!" My guess is that the next move will be away from these outfits, both because fashion seeks change and because some women will feel uncomfortable with the attention they receive.

Zigzagging Men Men have their own zigzag, because the messages that they've been sent by society have been so schizophrenic. Are men supposed to be Mr. Macho, always non-expressive, and the reliable breadwinner? (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Or are they supposed to be sensitive and caring? (Think Alan Alda.) As female roles have changed, it's inevitable that they would also have an impact on male roles. The fact is that for both genders, we're still not quite sure whether we're ready - or even want - to shed all vestiges of our traditional roles.

In terms of dress, men have experienced their own liberation of late. It used to be that professional men had to wear a suit and tie, but the casual late-1990s has relieved men in most professions of the need to be that formal - and, let's face it, boring. Men have more opportunities than ever before to be self-expressive in their clothing. It should be noted that African American men were there long before it trickled out to the white male culture. Still, a limiting factor in wardrobe decisions is something that has not changed for many heterosexual men. They are still afraid of looking like they are gay. (Women, on the other hand, do not seem to worry about being viewed as lesbian.)

When I conducted the Mantrack study for Playboy, I found that the "bad boy" syndrome was alive and well. It's a backlash against the "feminization" of men - the "boys will be boys" idea. This is perfectly embodied on Comedy Central's late-night testosterone fest, The Man Show. Although some men will act out in this way and lose all restraint - burping when they feel like it, scratching themselves wherever and whenever, sleeping with lots of women - the appeal of being a bad boy is mostly on a fantasy level. It's hard to give up the "fun" part of old acceptable gender roles. The reality of men's lives is usually different. Many men are deeply involved with, and committed to, their families. They speak movingly and openly about their love for their wife and children. The change for men is that it is now acceptable not only to live such "traditional" lives, but to also show their need for this connection.

Common Ground Between the Sexes Although confusion over roles still exists, there is more communication in male-female relationships. The truth today is that men and women have a lot in common. It used to be that husbands went out to work and wives stayed home, and their daily lives did not have that much in common. Today, with dual-income households, most couples have daily lives that contain similar experiences.

Not the Old 9-to-5 The rise in the number of home offices has gotten a lot of press hype. Although there is no doubt more people are working at home, I think predictions about everything moving in that direction go too far. People still need to interact. Many who work at home find it lonely. The workplace is an important social network similar to another family - an attitude we see glorified on television - and many people will never want to give up that camaraderie. They want to feel like a part of the company's mission, and it's hard to inspire those feelings when everyone works in separate places.

In a society where there are fewer points of security, when our marriage or parents' marriage is not withstanding the test of time and families are scattered throughout the country, we look for other safe harbors. That same feeling applies to the workplace.

Career, not just job, switching has become commonplace, even respected. It's not unusual to speak to a 29-year-old who is on her third career, without concern about a job-hopping resume being a drawback. You will find 45-year-olds who have quit their jobs to start a business in a new field. In fact, it's reached the point where people who stay with the same job for 30 years are considered decidedly old-fashioned and passive. If the career doesn't fit, don't keep wearing it. Some of this switching, of course, has come out of necessity as workers were downsized. Now they feel that if employers have no loyalty to them, they owe no loyalty back.

The scope of work has greatly expanded for many people, contributing to the time famine. Many people are working longer hours because of leaner companies, secretary-less offices, at-home businesses without strict office hours, and more global connections at all hours. Further, many professionals feel that to stay current, they must understand what's going on in a broader world. Beyond their own job, they have to know the latest technological tools, what their company is doing overall, what's happening in their industry, and trends in the United States and internationally. One consequence is the demand to keep up with media - the Internet, the ever-growing number of trade publications, and so on. The job never seems to end.

Redefined retirement is another trend we often see in other research. Certainly, many people would love to retire as early as possible, a dream few achieve. What is changing is that a growing number of people at or near conventional retirement age do not intend to stop working altogether. Some choose "semi-retirement," meaning that they work fewer hours. Others go full force into new careers or businesses. Others quit their jobs and then become consultants for the same company. Still others just keep doing what they've been doing for years. And, finally, there are those who do unsalaried work as volunteers, mentors, or investors. What all these continued workers have in common is that they have taken control of their work lives. They work because they want to, structuring their hours for greater freedom. They seek meaning and achievement in their work. The idea of "complete retirement" with unending leisure horrifies them. Looking ahead, we expect more Boomers to be productive workers well into their 60s, 70s, 80s - yes, even their 90s.

Community-seeking It has become a truism that niche marketing has replaced mass marketing. Consumers want to be recognized as having more specialized needs, rather than being part of some amorphous gigantic market. Don't send me messages aimed at parents if I don't have kids; don't talk to me as a corporate type if I own my own business. The Internet caters to, and has increased the desire to be part of, a community. Whatever one's characteristics or problems, somewhere there's probably a Web site that's for you. The countertrend is the great yearning people have to be part of something larger, whether on a serious or superficial level. Water-cooler conversation seems to be needed as much or more than ever. People who barely know one another can talk about the Oscars ("Can you believe what she wore?"), the Super Bowl (the ads), Who Wants to be a Millionaire ("Is that your final answer?"), Survivor ("He never should have won"). While there is no easy way to predict what will capture the public's interest, the search for community means that big hits will continue to happen.

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