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Q: It's January 2. Who can predict what wacky twists and turns await us beyond the misty horizon of 1998? A: Marketers.

By Ellen Barry

JANUARY 5, 1998:  Certain things cannot be predicted. The weather, for instance, is not predictable: beyond a range of about 10 days, meteorology gives way to climatology, which meteorologists regard as something akin to Ouija. Interpersonal conflicts may come and go with little warning. Soufflés fall. Celebrities die in tragic fashion. Sewer mains burst.

But that's the exception. As you blink the sleep of 1997 away from your eyes, wondering what new marvels 1998 has in store, here's the answer: digital video disks; gourmet tea shops; more enthusiastic gardening; feminized Lego toys; soothing talk radio; interest in vegetable lineage. That's 1998 according to Kim Long, who has been putting out the American Forecaster Almanac since 1983.

Long, an art-school graduate, will issue predictions about the dominant trends in any product category, and boasts an 80-percent accuracy rate. Over the years -- after his jokes about oat-bran beer and backward-jogging clubs came true -- he has developed the simple philosophy that "You can take anything that people are doing and deliberately extrapolate it to its furthest extreme, and the more extreme the extrapolation, the more accurate it is."

"You can't overestimate how silly people are," Long says.

Long is only one of a vast network of marketers, advance men, and professional predictors who have spent the past year beavering away at 1998. Here's a sneak preview what is going to happen, courtesy of the people who make it their business to know.

Trend No. 1: The color blue!

"What we're looking at is a revival of classic blues," says Pat Verlogt, a color forecaster based in Huntley, Illinois. "A lot of blues with a red or green cast. That's probably going to be one of the biggest stories of the year, is blue."

Verlogt is the first to admit that blue was not invented this year, but the color-forecasting industry is founded on the concept that sometimes a color is so unfashionable that by the time it reemerges into the consumer market, it is for all intents and purposes new. Such, she implies, is the case with blue.

Occasionally there are surprises. No one, not even the experts, expected lime green to work its way so far down the trend-color hierarchy -- from women's fashion, where trend colors are born, to automotive design, to home furnishings, to kitchen and bath, to small plastic housewares, to utility items such as lawnmowers. Other trends are more traceable: the "emergence of terra cotta," for instance. And if you don't like terra cotta, don't worry: you will.

"Another thing that happens with color is it grows on you," Verlogt says. "You can't get away from it, and then you start to like it."

As an example, she cites the green car -- an idea that would have gotten you laughed out of the Color Marketing Group conference as recently as 1990, but which sold more than any other color car last year. This kind of public elasticity puts great power into the hands of color forecasters, who, Verlogt says, "can't so much make people like a color as make them stop disliking it."

In other words, if you are like a large segment of society, it takes only a teensy bit of subliminal advertising, and your favorite color is history. "There are a lot of people out there who will change on a dime," she says.

Trend No. 2: Rhoda!

Notwithstanding the protests of rational people, the fashion world should be tied up with the '70s for a good five or six more years, reports Jimmy Newcomer, a forecasting expert and associate professor of fashion design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. After all, he reasons amiably, "When we did the '60s, back in the '80s, it took 12 years."

Look for Rhoda. Look for Mary Tyler Moore. This means tight little armholes, knit dresses, and Gypsy-style layering. However, do not become wedded to that decade or any other, including the one presently occurring. Newcomer is also looking out for '80s-style black leather and exaggerated shoulders; Joan Crawford-style Adrian suits circa 1940; and, from a French couture house that Newcomer will not reveal, a wholesale revival of Christian Dior's 1947 New Look, with its cinched waists and full skirts. Also: variable skirt length, stretch fabrics, lizard skin, serrated edges, variations on exercise wear, variations on bondage wear, anything from London.

Or at least, Newcomer thinks so.

In the fashion business, "about two-thirds [of 1998] is written in stone. The other third will surprise us," he says. "It's going to come from the young people, and it's going to be more in accessories than in garments themselves."

But he adds that even the club kids are hard-pressed for real novelty these days. "They're more conservative than they used to be," he says. "It's harder to shock. Because everyone's done everything. The green hair, the 25 piercings, the showing your breasts, the showing your privates, that doesn't really mean anything. Ho hum, I saw that last year." [See "Tongue splitting," below.]

Trend No. 3: Tongue splitting!

"As far as I'm concerned, tongue splitting is going to take off," says Shannon Larratt, editor of the Ontario-based Body Modification E-zine. "It has all the advantages of tongue piercing with none of the drawbacks."

People just need to know about it, he says. "Look at tongue piercing. Before the first tongue piercing was done, everyone wanted to do it but they didn't know how. Tongue splitting's the same way. Everyone wants to do it -- well, not everyone -- but a lot of people have a fantasy about doing it, but they don't know it's possible. Once people know something's possible, they want it now."

And so it goes in what Larratt refers to as the "modification community": the first person (typically, he says, a gay man in his 50s) takes a leap; it gets posted on the Web; the market explodes; it starts showing up in primetime. Although tongue splitting, it must be acknowledged, looks pretty weird. Surgeons slice the tongue down the center several millimeters at a time, then cauterize it, to create what looks less like a serpent's forked tongue than like two smaller human tongues lying side by side. After about a month, objects such as pencils can be manipulated between the two halves of the tongue.

Other trends that Larratt has been following include branding, scarification, and solid steel or coral forms implanted beneath the skin. His Web site features one man who had a small mold of the state of Texas implanted in his sternum.

When discussing these procedures, Larratt is understandably hesitant to use the language of fashion.

"It's not really a trend," he says. "These are pretty serious and permanent things to do your body. If you cut your tongue in two, you have it for the rest of your life."

Trend No. 4: The new Beetle!

Nineteen ninety-eight will be a year of automotive paradox, marked by the rerelease of everyone's favorite tiny car and the unveiling of irrationally large sport-utility vehicles.

In March, at the Detroit Auto Show, Volkswagen will launch the 1998 Beetle, which should retail in the $15,000 range. The new Beetle is "very round" and appears to be smiling, according to Matt DeLorenzo, editor of AutoWeek magazine. European reviewers who have test-driven the car -- it rides on the new VW Golf platform -- have given it the thumbs-up, and the Beetle's real success lies there, DeLorenzo says. "It shouldn't be just a styling statement. It should be a real car."

Sport-utility vehicles will continue to bulge upward and outward with the 1998 Lincoln Navigator, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall, 15-mile-per-gallon, $46,000 bruiser, but people who want a really big car will have to wait for the 1999 Ford Crew Wagon, which, at two full feet longer than the Lincoln Navigator, will be the largest sport-utility vehicle ever produced. More equivocal sport-utility enthusiasts may go for the hybrid Lexus RX 300, which looks like a sport-utility vehicle but rides on a car platform. Although sport-utility enthusiasts tend not to be equivocal.

"The reason people are buying these vehicles is because they offer the utility of the minivan, but it's just a much more expressive vehicle. It conjures up the outdoors -- 'I can do anything, I can go anywhere,' " DeLorenzo says.

He forgets to add: " . . . even if I don't want to right now." Market research reveals that the fraction of sport-utility vehicle owners who actually do off-road driving hovers around two percent. "It really is a psychological phenomenon rather than anything rooted in everyday use," DeLorenzo says.

Trend No. 5: Drug-resistant bacteria!

"I don't want to personify microbes," says Dr. Stephen Ostroff, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, before he will say anything else.

With that danger in mind, however, it's safe to say that microbes will behave much the same way in 1998 as they did in 1997: resourcefully. Researchers at the CDC's National Center for Infectious Disease have been watching out for antibiotic-resistant strains of staph and pneumococcus, which they anticipate will become a bigger and bigger health hazard in the near future "unless we can start convincing people that you don't need to use antibiotics every time you sneeze," Ostroff says.

The CDC is also responding to increasing concerns about food-borne illnesses and about bioterrorism, both on the international and the home-grown level. "More and more cocktails" for biological weapons are being posted on the Internet, which gradually increases the likelihood that someone will use them, Ostroff says.

As for the fatal avian flu that has recently spread to a handful of humans in Hong Kong, putting epidemiologists worldwide on alert, Ostroff doesn't want to pin himself down.

"We don't have sufficient information to say this is going to be the big pandemic of 1998. Maybe it's knocking on the door telling us it's ready for center stage. Maybe it's just not there yet," he says. "The history of influenza is strewn with the bodies of people who have tried to make predictions."

Trend No. 6: Spice World!

Remember when the studios were lining up for rights to Exorcist 2: The Heretic? It happened. They bid like crazy, hoping to relive the unpredictable success of The Exorcist. Well, The Heretic was a commercial disaster. The moral of the story is, feature films are a crapshoot until the day they come out. Even then they're tenuous; it's not until the second weekend that studios really know whether a film will take off.

However. If there is one certainty, it's Godzilla, opening May 20, which launched its prerelease publicity campaign shortly after the original Godzilla left the theaters. The film, which cost $125 million to make, had $150 million in tie-in deals in the bag by last fall. And January 23 brings Spiceworld: The Movie. Although British reviewers have already weighed in with such unintelligible foreign commentaries as "they can't act their way out of a Walker's Crisp packet" and "Victoria can't act for toffee," the New World release carries a certain ironic/non-ironic crossover potential. (What is "toffee"?)

Lost in Space, a marginally less campy revisiting of the 1970s television show, will be released in April. Armageddon, which opens July 1, features both Liv Tyler and the end of the world. And in late summer, the X-Files movie will tap into the eerie enthusiasm of 18 million television viewers.

But the more interesting question -- which movies will take once-promising careers down the gurgler with them? -- is one not even the experts will answer.

"I think it's totally chaotic," says George Mansour, who books films for the Kendall Square Cinema. "I think when you impose credibility and sense on what is essentially a chaotic business, it doesn't work. I just go by the seat of my pants. I think all the rest is masturbation."

Trend No. 7: Ethnic aerobics!

Spinning turned out to be too hard, sliding turned out to be too annoying, but aerobic exercise may have found a much-needed fillip, at least for the moment, in America's rich ethnic diversity. According to Peg Jordan, editor of American Fitness magazine, pioneering aerobics instructors in Miami and New York are venturing into "salsa, Caribbean, and Afro-aerobics," which sometimes involves live drummers.

During 2000 interviews with regular exercisers, Jordan found that the fluorescent, leotarded thumping up and down of Jane Fonda-style aerobics has given way to more low-pressure activities. Americans are abandoning gym exercise for recreational workouts in the outdoors -- perhaps, she speculates, as a respite from an overcomputerized workplace. And Americans are increasingly concerned that their workouts be relaxing; yoga was the second-most-popular exercise class last year, after full-body toning.

As for Jordan herself, her personal trend is away from any kind of aerobics at all.

"I'm 47 years old, and I've been doing aerobics since I was 28. I'm editor of a national magazine for aerobics instructors. And I'm at a point now where I'm sick of aerobics," Jordan says. "I'm being very honest with you now. If I never had to take another aerobics class again in my life, I'd be happy."

Trend No. 8: Baked-bean pizza!

Just kidding. Kim Long, of American Forecaster, uses baked-bean pizza as an example of why his profession is built on an ever-shifting foundation: Britain has been swept by baked-bean-pizza fever -- Brits, by the way, are the world's number-one consumers of baked beans -- but Long can comfortably guarantee that America will never, ever be a serious baked-bean-pizza market. There is no reason for this. It's just true.

"When you deal with emotions -- human emotions and cultural emotions -- it is dicier," Long says. Irradiation is a similar case; gamma-ray irradiation has been widely touted as a method of food sterilization for more than a decade, but the word makes consumers think of Chernobyl. All the FDA approval in the world won't change that.

Faced with these unpredictable quirks of human nature, companies are trying harder and harder to get inside consumers' heads. Focus groups aren't good enough anymore, since subjects tend not to have an accurate sense of what they really want; market researchers are resorting to such apocalyptic means as electrodes tracking eye movements in subjects looking at advertisements.

But, Long says, not even this wipes out the element of chaos in mass behavior. In a reductive field that assumes, above all, a human drive to conformity, this is what will have to pass for inspiration: however much marketers know about people, sooner or later, they come up against the unknowable.

"In a sense, everything that consumers do is a bit fickle," he says. "If it wasn't, the world would be a different place. All you would have to do would be to follow the rules, and go to the market researchers, and you would be guaranteed of success. But you can't guarantee it. There are going to be some mysterious elements."

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.
Kate Cunningham contributed to this article.

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