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Watching for the trends that swirl about one's feet

Every now and then, as one keeps a weather eye out for social trends, it makes sense to drop the gaze from the horizon and look about one's feet. Trends, after all, show up not only in the distant reports of academicians. They also show up in the marketplace -- in the millions of little decisions made by the consumers who buy, and the corporations that sell, life's little appurtenances. These last two weeks have been an especially fine time to watch one's feet. During this period:

Coca-Cola has rejiggered its top-secret formula, changing the taste of its product for the first time in its 99-year history.

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Pan American Airways, which once carried the United States flag around the world, has announced the sale of all the international routes across the Pacific it began acquiring 50 years ago.

Procter & Gamble has abandoned its 135-year-old trademark symbol (a man-in-the-moon face looking at 13 stars) under pressure from groups that have long tried to link the logo with Satanism.

Atlantic Richfield, the nation's sixth-largest oil refiner, widely known for its Arco gas stations, has announced plans to sell off all its marketing and refining operations east of the Mississippi.

Nothing major here, to be sure: The world won't come unstitched because of sweeter soft drinks or fewer gas stations. But on the landscape of America's popular culture, these corporations are significant structures. Their widely shared commercial products and symbols help knit the nation together.

That they should be shifting reminds us once again that the old order is not immune to change.

Just how changeable?

Some interesting light is thrown on that question by a study of advertising readership in the latest issue of Starch Tested Copy. This trade newsletter, a product of the venerable Starch Advertisement Readership Service, comments on the results of door-to-door reader polls. Pioneered by Daniel Starch in 1932, the technique is still used to find out which readers read what sorts of ads.

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This latest report compares the results of a 1983 poll of 4,547 households -- whose inhabitants were asked to select from a list the three areas of greatest interest to them -- with the results of a similar poll of 11,000 households in 1953. Among the findings:

In 1953 religion ranked 1st among women and 5th among men. By 1983 it had entirely disappeared from the top-10 list.

Replacing religion for women in 1983 was fashion and clothes -- up from 6th place in 1953. Occupying religion's old No. 5 place for men: science.

Men's interest in business shot up from 7th place (1953) to 1st place (1983). Travel rose from 9th to 4th place. And both home building (4th in 1953) and books (10th in 1953) dropped off the list.

Women's interest both in homemaking and child care, which ranked 3rd and 4th in 1953, took a dive: In 1983 the two ranked, respectively, 8th and 6th.

New to each list in 1983 (and ranking 3rd among women): health. Disappearing entirely from each list: gardening.

Like most reports on things right at our feet, this one is not particularly surprising. It simply confirms what most people have probably long suspected: that fashion advertising has attained an almost deific status among some women, while the power and wealth of business has taken precedence among men.

At the same time, the nesting instinct seems to have waned in both men and women: Interest in children, homemaking, home building, and gardening have all slipped substantially.

Clearly, these changes reflect changing demographics -- fewer children being born, more women working outside the home.

They also register massive changes in attitudes within the brief space of a single generation -- changes from hubbie to Yuppie, from mom to Ms., from concern with religion to concern for wealth and beauty, and from a focus on the simpler, more homey life of 1953 to a focus on a more self-indulgent culture of the 1980s.

What drives such shifts in our popular sense of ourselves and our interests? Such broad questions are best left to sociologists. One point, however, may be worth making -- 1953 was a watershed year, when more than half the American households with children under age 4 finally had television sets.

Were those very children, watching television before they learned to read, the first authentic ``television generation,'' as some researchers suggest? Raised on a fast-paced medium, did they easily adapt themselves to quick change?

Grown to maturity, are they now more tolerant of cultural earthquakes than their predecessors -- and less in need of long-lasting symbols of cultural stability?

Maybe so. So is what has happened to Coke and Pan Am and P&G and Arco only the beginning?

A Monday column Chart:Top ten basic interests, Women, Men. Source: Starch Advertisement Readership Service WOMEN 1953 1983 Religion Fashions & clothes Food Food Homemaking Health Child care Home furnishings Home furnishings Cultural activities Fashions & clothes Child care Entertainment Travel Gardening Homemaking Books Education Education Entertainment & books MEN 1953 1983

Sports Business Automobiles Sports Entertainment Automobiles Home building Travel Religion Science Gardening Politics Business Health Politics Cultural activities Travel Entertainment Books Education

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