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Taste-Making Quantified : TREND WATCHING : How the Media Create Trends and How to Be the First to Uncover Them by John E. Merriam and Joel Makower (Tilden Press: $17.95; 210 pp.)

April 24, 1988|Marjorie Marks | Marks is a writer and former corporate business analyst for a Fortune 500 media company.

Our voracious collective appetite for news of ourselves is almost as intense as our drive for food, shelter and sex. No wonder the dawning of the Information Age feels so good. We love hearing about ourselves.

Yet without some system for managing the ongoing deluge of data, the current information fest will diminish to mere "noise." Therein lies the new-age challenge addressed by "Trend Watching" authors John E. Merriam and Joel Makower in their sequel to John Naisbitt's "Megatrends," published in 1982.

While Naisbitt's blockbuster book described the 10 new directions transforming our lives, Merriam and Makower attempt the next step: to empower individuals and businesses (mainly businesses) with the tools necessary to project trends that will have an impact on them.

Trend watching, we are told, could have "saved the folks at Coca-Cola a lot of embarrassment--and more than a little money" if prior to the launch of their New Coke product, company officials had supplemented their intensive but static marketing studies with the much simpler technique of watching trends, according to Merriam and Makower.

"They might have realized that their gamble on the yuppie market was shaky at best" at a time when trend data clearly indicated the prevalence of widespread satisfaction with the status quo. Tampering with a sacred time-honored product like Coca-Cola while people were in a conservative mood could have been expected to produce the reaction it did, according to the authors.

Since media news is the strongest mover of the collective public mind, it is the information reservoir from which all social, political and economic action flows, according to the authors. It follows that if you know how the media affect the public's mind, you will have a better idea of where subsequent action is likely to lead.

"This is the elemental force behind almost all trends in modern society," say Merriam and Makower.

It is also the force a trend watcher must measure.

Trend analysis depends on understanding how various factors relate to newsmaking, such as the rates of exposure given to various issues, the capacity of people to store news in their minds for later use in the right context, the fascinating evidence that negative news is four times more powerful than other news in moving the public's collective mind, and media sensitivity ("news is what the media choose to make news").

Authors Makower and Merriam, whose backgrounds respectively include journalism and public relations, repeatedly stress their view that editors and reporters strive to be fair. Yet because of competition for space and time, their research indicates, "It is the editor . . . who decides what America learns. In the modern world, reality has become what the media exposes, much more than the events themselves."

They cite other examples of the inherent ability of the media to shape the information that society receives and ultimately acts upon, including their discovery that "the shift in NBC's coverage away from 1970s-type liberal issues can be linked almost directly to June, 1986, the month General Electric took over the network."

The ideas included in "Trend Watching" began to occur to author Merriam back in the 1970s, when he served under World Bank president Robert S. McNamara. As head of the bank's Department of Information and Public Affairs, Merriam was frustrated in his attempts to convince McNamara and other "numbers people" of the impact of media coverage on a variety of issues affecting the bank. He concluded that the field of public relations needed its own data base to quantify answers to the question, "What are the national media telling the American people?"

The result was the creation of The National Media Index, which quantifies the major national media's coverage of specific issues (and is published in his Issues Management Newsletter). Based on the principles and methods used in creating the Index, "Trend Watching" was written for those who wish to create a customized data base for their own use in spotting personally relevant trends. Consequently, the book's overall readability occasionally bogs down in the chapters dedicated to charts, graphs and what at times seem overly detailed descriptions of number-crunching functions.

Implementation of a trend- watching system would seem to require the employment of someone completely committed to mundane detail who is at the same time intelligent enough to understand the importance of accuracy. Despite the authors' insistence to the contrary, the task of tracking trends appears quite time consuming. As a result, trend watching may be an expensive luxury for the smaller company.

This raises one of the most commonly discussed and troubling aspects of the Information Age. Those who will have the most power in an information society will be those who have access to the most information. Those who have access to the most information will be the most highly educated and the best able to afford such access. Those who have neither will be the most vulnerable to manipulation, wittingly or not, because the essence of trend watching, writers Merriam and Makower assure us, is that it "allows you to stay ahead of the pack while the pack becomes increasingly confused about where it is going." Overall, a fascinating book.

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