Can Anyone Really Predict Pop Culture Hits?

Self-proclaimed trendspotters are paid a fortune to anticipate future consumer tastes. But how good are they?

Fortune teller

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When it comes to predicting pop culture hits, don’t count on me. Prime example: As a teen in a pip-squeak of a New Jersey town, I had a neighbor who was a schoolteacher and sometime songwriter. Sweet guy. Word got around that he was working on a musical — intended for Broadway, no less — about the founding of our nation. Ha!, I thought to my simpleton self. A song-and-dance extravaganza about John Adams and the gang? Ain’t gonna happen.

You know where this is going, right? 1776, my neighbor’s creation, scored as Best Musical at the Tony Awards and enjoyed an epic run on the Great White Way. Lesson learned: When it comes to what’s gonna be hot, ya never know. (What are the odds Taco Bell’s brand-new clothing line will survive more than a season?) Except that there are those who insist they do know. Let’s just say I’m skeptical.

In his recent book, Hit Makers, Derek Thompson (see “A Brief History of Teenagers“) observed that popcult successes are “intrinsic freaks, outliers, and exceptions. There is no complete and perfect formula for building a popular product.” Agreed. Thompson is merely emphasizing what many have said before. It’s not that no one knows anything; some folks do seemingly have an aptitude for sniffing out what will sell. But you can’t bottle that stuff.

Little surprise, then, that picks by the professional trendspotting and forecasting communities are famously unreliable. Yet seldom do any news outlets follow up to shine a light on their misses. (Hemp attire was gonna be huge!)

As for these self-described trend­spotters, too many are vain enough to believe that their pumped-up press releases are inherently newsworthy. Having determined to feed off our popular and consumer cultures, these parasites (okay, some, not everyone) have successfully grown their own cottage industry.

The fact of the matter is that labeling yourself a professional trendspotter or forecaster requires a particularly robust strain of chutzpah. Also, it demands — or should — the ability to analyze actual cultural intelligence. Too often it’s more about the former than the latter. Thing is, there is no exact science here. You actually believe you can identify the exotic fruit Americans will be craving in 2019?

There is no exact science here. You actually think you can identify the exotic fruit Americans will be craving in 2019?

I am especially intrigued by those annual predictions about what colors will be “in” in the months ahead. So much hype surrounds the new palettes for fashion, paint, and cars.

One forecasting outfit recently reported that “We see nature’s [growing] influence … the colors of stone and marble, driftwood, mushrooms, and natural linen conjure serenity.”

As it happens, Behr Paint recently “revealed” its 2018 Color of the Year. “In the Moment,” the company calls it. A “restorative blue-green hue.” All right, that too represents “serenity.” So, we have ourselves a bona fide trend? Not so fast. Pantone, a company best known for its color-matching system, has a totally contrasting point of view. It’s predicted 2018 will favor “intense” colors. Think Minions, Pantone said. Decidedly not soothing.

It’s all rather confusing and contradictory. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Are these trendspotters taking a stab at what will be popular — or are they hoping to influence our purchasing habits?”

As a Forbes writer said not long ago, “what bothers me most are the trendspotters (and trend departments) that simply gather more and more flotsam for the data spillway” without regard to context or meaning. I’m definitely with her. But as I said earlier, you can’t always bet on me — or anyone else — in these matters.

Read “9 Cultural Trends that Are Definitely Happening”

In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about modern-day journals.

This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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