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Predicting a Future We Can All Relate To

Trends: Today's fortune cookies have abandoned enigmatic philosophy for realism--everything from daily affirmations to instant gratification.

July 09, 1996|TARA MACK | THE WASHINGTON POST

You're rushed. You're busy.

You don't have much time for lunch. You certainly don't have time to contemplate an obscure, elliptical aphorism hidden in the fortune cookie that comes after your meal.

You want a fortune you can understand, information you can use, now, today, that addresses you personally.

Or at least that's what fortune writers have divined.

Fortune cookies, however steeped in the illusion of ancient tradition, have changed to keep up with our fast-paced culture.

Confucius is out. Philosophy is out. Broken English is out.

Simple is in. Instant gratification is in. Humor is in.

And if you miss the old-fashioned fortunes with your moo goo gai pan? Well, welcome to the '90s. Being philosophical no longer works.

Maryann Blais, who writes fortunes for a small company in Massachusetts, says that fortunes "have become more liberal, easier to understand, more fun."

Blais, a former truck driver, runs the office for United Automation Technology, a company in Westborough, Mass., that manufactures both fortune cookie slips and fortune cookie-making machines.

The fortune cookie experience of the '90s should not be boring or confusing, she says. Messages should strive for clarity, simplicity. They should be upbeat (UAT makes the fortune slips with the smiley faces on them). They should make people think, but not too hard. They should be realistic, or at least as realistic as a prophecy can be. And, in addition to being funny, they should spark a little after-dinner conversation.

You will find a bushel of gold: too unrealistic.

You will have great success: too vague.

Confucius say lovers in triangle not on square: too confusing.

Fortune cookies, which used to resemble quick-hit psychic hotlines or offer philosophical sound bites, have become daily affirmations.

Some writers have pushed the boundaries of the fortune cookie genre even further. Dan Wallace, a marketing consultant, was hired to write new messages for Keefer Court Food in Minneapolis. The company was concerned that its messages were getting a bit, well, stale.

He decided to abandon the traditional "Confucius say" broken-English format, which he says was boring and tainted with racist overtones.

Some of his messages don't contain prophecy or advice. One offers a logic puzzle: "This sentence is false. The previous sentence is true." Another says simply "Yes."

Mike Fry, founder of the Indianapolis-based Fancy Fortune Cookies company, also thought the fortune cookie needed modernizing. After taking a class on goal-setting 14 years ago, Fry wrote out a list of 183 items. Inventing and marketing a product was No. 83. He already joined the circus (No. 1) and starred in a local TV show (No. 2).

Most companies keep databases of thousands of fortunes that they periodically freshen up with new ones or those they swap with other companies. Ideas for fortunes can come from anywhere, fortune writers say. Conversations with friends, television, quote books, other fortune cookies.

Donald Lau, vice president of Wonton Food in Brooklyn, even has fortune-writing contests for schoolchildren. He got the idea from an art teacher in Richmond. He says students come up with fortunes that are more appealing to a younger generation: "You will never be late for school" and "You will never beat up your sister."

Pop the phrase "fortune cookie" into an Internet search engine and dozens of sites appear. Most invite the reader to reload the page over and over and read fortune after fortune pulled from large databases. Others ask people to subscribe and receive a new fortune weekly or daily. One even displays a digital cookie.

Not all efforts to bring the fortune cookie up-to-date have been successful.

Wallace says he found his customers didn't want logic puzzles or abstract aphorisms that don't address them personally. His formula for a good fortune cookie message: "Make it predictive. Make it 'you'-oriented. And if you can, make it a little bit funny, too, or mysterious." In other words, make it a fortune.

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