During the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, an
unusual study was carried out by two American academics, H Louis Nightly and
Fred Skrase. Nightly was a flamboyant psychologist who came to minor prominence
in the nineteen sixties on the back of a series of provocative public
statements about drugs culture. This phase did not last longer than it took
Nightly to get himself noticed and by the mid-sixties he had switched his
attention to the consumer society and the psychology of spending.
Fred Skrase was a more traditional and less colourful
academic statistician with a taste for lateral thinking. He was a moderately
successful writer of books on popular science in which he often presented semi-serious
demonstrations of improbable statistical relationships between such things as
traffic congestion and the phases of the moon.
Nightly and Skrase first met one evening in 1965 at the
house of a mutual university friend and although the two men had quite
different temperaments, for some reason they hit it off. They got talking about
their respective specialties and ended up discussing the effect of consumer
society on the health of the average American.
Out of this casual conversation came a research project
which was to be a definitive study of the consumer society they saw growing up
before their eyes. Although Nightly and Skrase were academics, their research
was not pure academic research because Nightly somehow managed to arrange for
it to be part-funded by a large advertising agency, which was unusual even in
Nightly and Skrase carried out an exhaustive examination of
the health records of about 12,000 people over a five year period from 1966 to
1971. They also got each subject to fill in a detailed questionnaire on the
spending patterns of their household. After an enormous amount of work, mostly
carried out by Skrase, the two researchers claimed they had found a definite
correlation between the general health of their subjects and the number of
durable goods bought by the subject’s household.
The more durable goods bought by a household and the more
expensive the goods were, the better the general health of the household. Also,
there was a more strongly significant health correlation with goods bought for
cleaning purposes such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Other household
durables such as TV sets and electric toasters had a less significant
correlation with health.
Of course, as soon as Nightly and Skrase found these
correlations, they immediately made the obvious conclusion - a more healthy
household is generally a more prosperous household which simply spends more on
durable goods. However Nightly and Skrase had a way round this by taking
advantage of a feature of their times – breakfast food competitions.
They were able to show that if poorer households acquired
durable goods by winning them in competitions, then they had the same general
level of health which they would have had if they had paid for the goods like a
more prosperous household.
For example, a poorer household might get lucky and win a
washing machine or a freezer, or even a car in a breakfast food competition. At
that time these competitions were very popular and Nightly and Skrase were able
to compile enough data on poorer households to be statistically valid. They
concluded that there was a valid relationship between spending on durable goods
and household health even if those goods had been won in a breakfast cereal competition.
Even though this study was based on a large sample
population, the research was not greeted with enthusiasm. Nobody seems to have
accepted that spending their money on household goods would improve their
health. The advertising agency was not impressed either. Somehow by 1971 a
belief in the consumer revolution had faded and the agency did not use the
research they had paid for and seem to have written the idea off as a failure.
So the world was never exposed to ads claiming that buying a
new washing machine was good for your health, even though Nightly and Skrase
appear to have made their case. The two friends never followed up their work so
now it sits on dusty academic shelves as a little-known slice of oddball
consumer research which nobody ever quite believed in spite of Fred Skrase’s
Shortly afterwards Fred Skrase left academia and went on to
found a modestly successful computer software company on the back of the
personal computer boom, while Louis Nightly tried and failed to interest health
insurance companies in a scheme to give away vacuum cleaners with their health
insurance policies. Nightly tried to argue that the cost of the vacuum cleaners
would be more than offset by reduced health insurance claims due to the
beneficial effects of owning a brand new cleaner, but insurance companies were
not convinced or interested.
A tale for the
weekend is fiction
I’m sure nobody found themselves believing this story even
though it is intended to be vaguely plausible. As a spot of weekend relaxation I invented Nightly and Skrase to make two related points which we all know.
People prefer plausible fiction to the complexities and
uncertainties of analysis.
Media folk know it, so they prefer it too.