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Life Style in the '90s, According to Popcorn

January 16, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — To dispense first with the inevitable:

"I do not discuss my name."

Faith Popcorn was impatient. She has been asked about her, shall we say, distinctive surname no fewer than 10 million times.

"It's on my passport," she said.

So what if it was once Papacorne, the imaginative product of an overzealous immigration officer and an Italian great-grandfather named Corne and fondly known as Papa? Suddenly Faith Popcorn brightened, and the smile that spread across her face revealed the tiniest gap between her front teeth.

"I think people should change their names every 10 years," she declared.

Aha! That notion sounds mightily like a candidate for status as a Trend. And though her skill as a repositioner of failing products and her expertise at new product development are what earn annual revenues of well over $20 million for BrainReserve, the marketing and consulting firm she founded here 13 years ago, it is Popcorn's uncanny ability to forecast

Doing Her Homework

Poring over 265 periodicals--"everything from the Utne Reader, the Reader's Digest of the counterculture, to TV Guide"--and conducting in-depth interviews with about 2,000 consumers across the country each year, Popcorn portends shifts in the American psyche that both mirror and move the marketplace.

"If you benchmark what we have been saying for the last 10 years," Popcorn said, "95% of what we have been saying is accurate."

Popcorn leaned across her desk, a functional, geometric object in an uncluttered room painted pale trendy gray. Modesty was not at issue here this morning, clearly: "That is extremely high," she said. "Sometimes it even surprises me."

For example:

Shoulder pads. Seven years ago, Popcorn let it be known that women would start paying big bucks to look like linebackers. Preventive medicine was another of her prognostications. Ditto the return of flashy cars. When she began using the word parenting three years ago, people looked at her oddly and allowed they did not know about that particular gerund.

Popcorn was among the first to warn marketers that frozen soy bean curd might not send consumers into a high-calorie cloud of universal ecstasy. Tofutti, she augured, simply didn't taste good enough. Sure enough, before long, there was Tofutti Brand president David Mintz admitting that supermarket freezer space was not unrestrictedly forthcoming for his product.

Long before the advent of "Golden Girls," back as early as 1980, Popcorn foretold the popularity of older TV stars.

That same pre-VCR-boom year, she quite accurately prophesied a decade that would bring in-home media chambers, a declining divorce rate and the rise of salt-free products.

Barely was the first carbonated bubble in the can but that Popcorn said New Coke would fizzle. "The marketing fiasco of the decade" was exactly how she described it, two days after the beverage made its much-ballyhooed debut.

These days she's looking at AIDS, the disease she contends "will be the biggest outside influence to change trends in the '90s." Beyond the predictable changes in sexual mores, the AIDS epidemic will affect how food is packaged--she suggests a "subtle, homey" approach to sanitary seals--and will influence the way men and women want to look, Popcorn said.

"With AIDS, you see, it's not so great to be thin anymore," she said. "Within 18 months, that connection is going to be made."

But not everyone wants to hear this kind of forecast. "We said this two years ago, to much laughter," Popcorn said. "It makes people very uncomfortable."

Holing Up at Home

To avoid discomfort, to stay insulated from "harsh, unpredictable realities" of an increasingly complicated world, people will engage more and more in a practice Popcorn labels "cocooning." It was among her own circle of acquaintances that she first began observing this habit of shunning fancy clubs and parties, staying away from crowded movie theaters and holing up at home on weekend days and nights. What Popcorn realized was that masses of people seemed to prefer hanging out in sweat clothes and pulling their down comforters up to their noses, the better to seek shelter against an uncontrollable planet.

"At least on a very subliminal level," Popcorn said, "we realize that the environment is being destroyed, the government is dishonest and somebody has a button that could really blow up us and our children."

In her view, these cocoons, little in-home wombs that they are, fairly scream out the word safety. As such, the cocoon of the '80s and '90s is reminiscent of the den of the '40s and '50s. Indeed, she said, noting the popularity of '50s-themed music in a rash of recent movies, "you can figure out what the '90s are going to do if you study the '40s and '50s."

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