Faith Popcorn

The Popcorn Report, Faith Popcorn

Harper Business, 1992, 268 pages, C$15.00 tpb, ISBN 0-88730-594-6

Oh, I so do love futurists. They’re like stunted Science-Fiction authors who had all the imagination beaten out of them by MBA-holding Zen masters. Futurists say they explore new ideas and extrapolate from existing trends, but when you look at it ten years later, does their track record hold any better than SF writers of the time?

Not really. Exhibit number one: The much-celebrated Popcorn Report, by Faith Popcorn. Written in the early nineties, it was supposed to give us pointers on the ten following years. Well, ding-dong, the decade’s up and it’s time to take a look at what she said then.

Ten trends. Okay, here they are: Cocooning in a New Decade, Fantasy Adventures, Small Indulgences, Egonomics, Cashing Out, Down-Aging, Staying Alive, The Vigilante Consumer, 99 Lives and Save Our Society.

Okay. Sure. Spot anything incongruous here? You shouldn’t.

And that may very well be my point. Re-read The Popcorn Report today and while some cultural differences may have evolved, it’s not as if it’s totally alien. Neither particularly prescient nor exceptionally wrong, this book could be re-issued today with only a few dates rubbed out and it would still be publishable.

So what does that say, exactly? That Popcorn was right enough ten years ago that she’s still on track? Or rather that by predicting bland middle-of-the-road generalities, you can’t go wrong? Of Popcorn’s “ten big trends”, a lot of them look like stuff consultants spout off to companies just to be one the safe side: “be honest or your customers will hate you.” Ooh. “They will pay more for a premium product.” Gee. “They love it when they get something that’s customized for them.” Wow. Smart thinking there, Einstein.

Of Popcorn’s ten trends, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that’s not true today. But then again, it’s been the case for thirty years. Yes, everyone wants to save the environment. Yes, everyone wants to have a safe thrill or two from time to time. Don’t you say that people want to retire as soon as they can afford to? Heavens!

Meanwhile, the Internet whooshes by Popcorn, who still goes bonkers for the oh-so-early-nineties virtual reality. But maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on her for that, as a lot of people didn’t see it coming either. ANd yet, that was the biggest business story of the decade. Whoosh. Business seers are ill-equipped to deal with technological discontinuities.

At least it’s a dynamic read. If you’re familiar with espresso-laced business consulting literature, The Popcorn Report‘s writing style will be familiar: All pow-pow-pow rhetoric, “backed” by fringe anecdotes that might actually mean something if you believe everything you read.

Please excuse my cynicism (or better yet; embrace it), but I have already seen far too many of those so-called “analyses” deceive over-eager “decision-makers”. By fishing extreme anecdotes as indicative of trends, Popcorn marginalizes her propositions for anyone used to seeing facts and figures. How about a poll tracking attitudes over a five-year period? Wouldn’t that be a more convincing method to prove or disprove how attitudes will evolve? But The Popcorn Report is heavy on stories and light on figures…

Despite my skepticism, though, The Popcorn Report still makes for good wish-fulfillment reading. It’s argued in an interesting fashion, and probably stands best as a timeless reminder of ways one company can hope to distinguish itself from competitors. But the decade that has elapsed since the publication of the book certainly offers a more accurate assessment of the books true “predictive” worth.