- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

A decade that began with fears of a Y2K “crisis” - now a laughable memory - has ended with a year of upheaval, in which Americans came together but their institutions fell apart and money woes pocked the nation’s political, cultural and corporate landscapes.

The past 12 months saw heightened techno- devotion with people “Tweeting” and blogging in ever-increasing numbers, even as a dizzying array of “apps” turned our cell phones into mobile cyber-offices.

We lost pop icon Michael Jackson - improbably - to an administered drug overdose, Senate lion Edward M. Kennedy to cancer and a sizable chunk of the U.S. auto industry to a declining economy and manufacturing sector gone abroad.

We discovered an unlikely songbird in matronly but gifted Susan Boyle and some of the star luster came off the youthful President Obama, whose popularity sank to a low point even as his party pushed its health plan - the latest in a series of big-spending bills - through the Senate. Whether it was Congress’ spending or our paychecks shrinking (or ceasing) - money woes made our world go around.

“If anything was the key driver of consumer attitudes and behavior this year, it was the economy,” said Ann Mack, the director of trend-spotting for the New York ad agency JWT, in describing the year in review.

“People were so anxious around the state of the economy and how that was going to affect them directly. They reacted accordingly, cutting back whenever possible. They traded down; they chose quality over quantity.”

In making tough choices, many consumers, she said, took the time to read the fine print.

“Over the past year, people put more time and energy into finding good values. Whether it was learning the ins and outs of nutrition, the environment or ethical business practices, consumers have more information available to them, thanks to another trend - maximum disclosure,” Ms. Mack said.

“Not only have [we] seen consumers seeking better information, but brands are being more transparent than ever before in response … from caloric counts on menus to carbon footprints and sourcing. Consumers are getting wise and wanting to know more.”

Even as we opened our eyes to values and issues, we embraced reality television more than ever with TV shows like “John & Kate Plus 8,” “Tool Academy” and “Project Runway” capturing our can’t-turn-away-from-an-accident fancy. We liked watching people dancing, losing weight and building houses for the needy.

But some wannabe celebrities got more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame and that often was not a good thing, said William McKeen, a University of Florida professor who studies the intersection of media and popular culture.

“This is the year when publicity-seeking imbeciles were so delirious in their pursuit of undeserved fame that they freely gave up their privacy and self-respect to humiliate themselves in front of millions on reality TV. I’m thinking of the balloon boy and the state dinner crashers,” Mr. McKeen said of unlikely 2009 newsmakers.

“They achieved their goal. They did become famous. In the process, they revealed themselves to be tools of monstrous proportions, but as long as they were on television, they didn’t care.

“Everyone wants to be famous and society has come to regard fame as a birthright,” he said with some disgust. “The only question has to do with timing. Nobody wants to earn it by curing cancer or fixing the economy or exploring new frontiers of space.”

Nextpert.com President David Post, a trends authority, notes that amid the bankruptcies and corporate meltdown, 2009 marked the rise of the virtual world and its increasing importance along with the power of new “apps” or computer applications that he predicts will evolve to change the way people live their lives.

He points to the growth this year of 65 million users of a Facebook “casual game” called Farmville in which users grow and sell crops and animals, along with the popularity of other cybergames such as Mafia Wars as evidence of our collective investment in virtual entertainment.

“This year a lot of Facebook and iPhone users began to look for what else is out there for me. The evolution went from people on Facebook telling ‘what I’m doing today,’ and Tweets of ‘what I’m doing at this moment’ - and then these casual worlds were born,” he said. “Nobody in their wildest imagination would have said that the market for these casual worlds would be so big.”

Next up for future trends include a heightened interest in interactivity and virtual worlds for wider audiences with games “where people can play more seriously.”

“That is a big marketplace for the future,” said Mr. Post of our virtual devotion and the interest in fantasy with blockbuster films such as December’s feature release “Avatar.”

“I think people were looking for something better than your life was, for a fantasy to get away from their troubles. The escape aspect is not to just watch a TV show and escape - it’s now experiencing it personally … and technology has allowed that more than ever before.”

Among the top entertainment-driven stories were the “Octomom,” a California woman who used fertility treatments to give birth to a record-tying eight children, along with the deaths of Mr. Jackson and former “Charlie’s Angel” Farrah Fawcett, said Robert Thompson, a professor who heads the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“One of the trends we saw was the digitization of American popular culture,” he said. “This was a big year for celebrities and things like Twitter, Facebook … which begun to manifest in more significant ways. None of this stuff was original in 2009, but in January, there were a lot of people who might not have know what it was.”

Mr. Thompson cited the inauguration of Mr. Obama as the biggest pop-political culture story of the year, even as it played out with less aplomb as the year progressed.

“The nature of that story has changed since January 2009, but it still was a big one,” he said.

Mr. McKeen described the Obama hope-and-fade spiral as “the year of diminished expectations.”

“All the young people who voted for St. Barack realized this year that he couldn’t walk on water. It’s been sad, in a way, watching this generation’s idealism fade so suddenly and so resoundingly,” Mr. McKeen added. “Maybe now that their expectations are back down to earth, they’ll learn that the politicians’ real purpose is to win and keep their jobs. Genuine public service is way down the list.”

Political successes aside, Ms. Mack noted that one positive theme for the year is that many people - fearful of the economy and future - went back to basics.

“We have seen this idea of simple pleasures return,” she said. “With this reality and risk of money running short, there was real incentives for consumers to enjoy what they have and what they truly can afford.

“They adopted low-tech pastimes like sewing, cooking, gardening and board games,” she said. “We saw people spending more time with their family, sitting around the dinner table rather than grab-and-go or eating out. We saw this embrace of the here and now rather than constantly thinking ahead.”

Some people who lost jobs also found themselves making time to re-evaluate what mattered, marking a positive break in their career lives, she said. Applications for teaching jobs went up, along with applications for entrance into schools of public policy and government.

“This year, people reassessed and questioned whether they wanted to return to the same line of work, either because it wasn’t fulfilling in the first place or more lucrative opportunities elsewhere,” she said. “We saw interest rise in secure fields like health care or education or jobs that offer more personal fulfillment.”

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