Interview: Marian Salzman - The future is in her head

Marian Salzman is paid to know how we're going to live, and what we're going to buy, in the next century. Cole Moreton gazed into her crystal ball

Marian Salzman has seen the future and it works, at least for her. This brassy New Yorker is paid large amounts of money to predict how we will live, love, think and (most of all) spend in years to come. She knows, for example, that the world's favourite colour at the start of the new millennium will be blue. There is nothing you can do about it; the decision has been made and the results are beginning to reach the shops. Apple chose a sea-green shade called Bondi blue for its swish new iMac computer; Pepsi has repackaged its pop in deeper blue and American Express is supplementing the famous green card with a blue one.

Salzman is the Gypsy Rose Lee of the corporate world, who can spot when individual decisions like these add up to an exploitable trend. She has an army of "trend-trackers" stationed around the world whose job is to notice what is happening, so that she can predict what it means.

Hunches must always be backed up with harder evidence, so trackers were asked to name the colour that their fellow countrymen and women most identified with the millennium. "Blue is the colour of the sky; open and full of hope," said a Canadian. To the Poles it meant hope for a better future; in China blue was "fresh and cool". The results were published in a weekly newsletter sent to the clients and staff of Young & Rubicam, which owns her company, Brand Futures Group. Million dollar decisions are made on the basis of the reports, so we can all look forward to a blue Christmas.

Salzman's secrets have now been made available to the rest of us in a book called Next: A Spectacular Vision of Our Lives in the Future, which sets quirky predictions about cybersex and robotic lawn mowers in the context of more visible megatrends like racial tension and the development of a United States of Europe.

"Most people say, `It's all so obvious,'" said Marian when we met at the offices of a public relations agency in Leicester Square (which had dutifully illuminated its lobby in deep blue). "My answer is, `Well right, but why didn't you go write it down and do something about it?' You can't win with trend-tracking: if you get it wrong, you're bloody ridiculous; if you're right, it was so obvious that people knew it all along. If you sorta get it right, people say it is self-fulfilling."

Salzman had predicted that various shades of grey would provide the best outfit for a flying visit to frost-bitten London. She is a big, bold woman with a broad face and strong mouth accentuated by red lipstick, and speaks with the accent of an American who has spent a long time abroad. Her delivery is dramatic and a little self-important, particularly when I ask her to describe how trends are tracked: "You identify now. You identify next. You try to predict the path of change, the rate and the speed of change and the influences that could cause this course to alter."

Ah. Thanks for clearing that up. Any chance of a jargon-free example? "OK. When Princess Diana died, suddenly the age of 36 became the age of desirability. She was literally frozen at what the world deemed the height of her physical beauty, the height of her sexuality and sensuality. Having identified that, you go back and look for other evidence. Marilyn Monroe also died at 36, frozen at the height of her youthfulness and beauty. How old was Sharon Stone when she was in Basic Instinct? 36. You suddenly start to see a case beginning to be built."

Almost. It seemed ungallant to suggest that the blonde Ms Salzman might have been influenced by her own age: mid-thirties. Her argument developed through the obvious trend for businesses to react to anxiety about the future by looking back to the past. "There's nothing better to sell the glamour of tomorrow than something that is frozen in time. What's the underwear that's doing gangbusters in the US? High-price lingerie, the Marilyn Monroe collection. Had Diana not died I don't think 36 would have come to the fore, and I don't think you would have seen as much rehashing of Marilyn Monroe."

Very few people have made that explicit connection, I said, unconvinced. "Because it isn't what they're paid to do for a living. But many people did start to get this increased sense of how old is sexy. It has suddenly gotten much older. We have started of thinking of 40 as quite young."

Brand Futures Group contacts volunteer trend-scouts in 80 countries by e-mail three times a week. They are all employees of Young & Rubicam companies. "More often than not they are incredibly verbal, under 40, they fancy themselves as somewhat fashionable. They are sociable, and usually buffs of music or literature, art or cinema, or something else that puts them in the throes of life."

More than anything, Salzman relies on her own instinct and powers of observation. "Every place I go in the world I have a set routine: I go to the supermarket to watch what people put into their carts." Why? "I think if you stand around for a couple of hours you start to get a pretty interesting pattern of a community." Or you get arrested. "I have had that problem. You normally get dragged off to the manager to explain yourself." All her work is about understanding the dreams and aspirations of people in various cultures, she says. "Ultimately all of marketing is about inventing desire. It's about trying to push the right buttons to get the same kind of hormonal rush people got when they were 13 and went off to a school dance."

Salzman was born into a "white, suburban, not very interesting" New York family. After Harvard she went into advertising and researched youth markets for clients including Levi's, Reebok and Nike. Her life was changed when she moved to Holland in 1995 to research markets outside America. "I didn't know a damn thing about the Second World War until then. People whose families had been killed there came to the US to forget; they kept under wraps what they'd seen. We had been trend-tracking in the US with not a lot of sense of the rest of the world."

The move challenged her very clear ideas about where trends originated: the African-American community and surfer dudes. "Very simple. The American way says you go to the beach or you go to the basketball courts. The reality is that many other movements have an influence. An example would be gabber: people dancing at a speed quicker than you can run, 220 beats per minute. Clearly there are drug undertones to this. In Austin, Texas, they had the first international gabberfest last summer. Then you find that this trend started in Germany, spread to Holland, and is being underwitten by all kinds of underground, chi-chi European fashion brands as it is sold to the States. The edict that the American way is the best way makes absolutely no sense for today's world." In that respect she is lagging behind the rest of us, I say. "That's right. But for an American it's brave thing to state."

To the reader outside the manic world of marketing, the book suggests that we are fiddling while Rome begins to burn. White, middle-class Westerners have swapped materialist aspirations for the dream of a pure, clean, simple life but are prepared to go to increasingly complicated lengths to get it - with the same old lack of concern for anyone else. "This is a travelogue into a middle-class future, I make no apologies for that," she says. "I'm not optimistic. The world is dividing into four: the East, the West, the emerging nations and technology have-nots. The best thing Americans could do right now is to go and live in Johannesburg for three months, as I did, because that's what we're going to experience in America over the next 40 years, when we become a non-white society, when the English language is not the driving language of the mass population of the world, where we face repercussions for the way we have forced Hispanic and African- Americans into economic apartheid."

For all her personal misgivings, Salzman is a guru in an industry that demands she be positive and point to exploitable markets. "Tarot card reading is not going to get me anywhere. The best I can do is call patterns for my clients as far into the future as I can call them well, which is really 18-36 months. The people who are going to survive are adventurers, who know how to seize opportunities and work them in a way that is in synch with their own moral and behavioural codes, and know how to keep moving."

So what does she believe in? "I don't believe in anything. Let me clarify that: a belief is something that I'm ultimately sure is going to be true the day after tomorrow. When you're in the business of measuring the likelihood and rate of change, all you can believe is that change is inevitable. The flip side is, I've become increasingly conservative about what is acceptable for me."

`Next: A Spectacular Vision of Our Lives in the Future' by Marian Salzman is published tomorrow by HarperCollins, price pounds 14.99.

WHAT MARIAN SAYS...

About privacy

Net-based private eyes will be employed to check up on the criminal, financial background and medical records of a potential mate; satellite technology will enable anyone to purchase a photo of a spouse's indiscretions; parents will insist on having visual access to their little darlings at daycare, and may extend camera surveillance systems to their own homes

About birthday presents

Customers of florists, wine merchants and so on will fill out a form at the beginning of the year indicating what should be sent to whom. The process will be carried out automatically

About sleep

Sleeping machines will be used either to produce restful sleep or provoke intense dreams. Alarms will awaken the user moments after the dream has ended, so that he or she can make a record of it

About gardening

Robotic lawn mowers will mow grass, programmed to avoid obstacles such as bushes and children's playthings

About sexual attraction

Don't be surprised to hear of a new unisex fragrance called Brainy or Intellect, or of orgasms grounded in mind f***ing, with no physical contact, just the power of the mind to lead us beyond cybersex into something more heady and esoteric

About meeting people

At a nightclub, party or conference you'll answer a handful of questions, then be handed a tag in which your answers are stored. As you approach someone else in the room, lights on the tag will either turn red (indicating a difference of opinion) or green (for similar answers)

About the dentist's drill

Will be replaced by a combination of laser treatments, new decay-fighting toothpastes and a chewing gum that cleans teeth

About dogs

In our increasingly security-conscious world we'll see the growth of a rental market for trained dogs: bomb-sniffing attack dogs for patrolling corporations, guard dogs for homeowners on vacation, security dogs for women jogging alone or working late at night

About fitted kitchens

Intelligent refrigerators will track consumption of staples, printing a shopping list on demand or transmitting it electronically to a home delivery service; smart stoves will "know how you like your eggs"

About heroes

An extension of the current trend of "geek chic", modern-day heroes in popular culture will rely less on muscles than on brains - and computer know-how

About sex

In an age in which real-world sex has become risky, to say the least, many are turning to the relatively safe and frequently anonymous world of silicon sex. Options range from cybersex (in which partners or groups engage in explicit, real-time online communication and simultaneous masturbation) to online pornography, from computerised sex toys to the forthcoming "sexbot"

About getting pregnant

With the rise in infertility and more older couples wanting to have children, mail-order catalogues will provide details about egg and sperm donors, allowing prospective parents to shop for genetics in the comfort of their homes

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