When I was a biomedical engineering PhD student at Berkeley, a wise veteran lab partner once told me, “Statistics allow you to suggest anything you want. Just start with a conclusion and find a pattern in the data that fits to confirm it.” I’m reminded of that every time I read about research studies published in the media, and when it comes to coffee there are plenty of examples.

Media consumers just love to look at themselves in pollsOf course, there’s all the health-related coffee research — which, with each decade of fabricated conflict and controversy, grows ever more dubious. However, this time we’re talking about the popularity poll. Our self-curious society loves to play Family Feud with itself, and, in terms of ready-made readership and distribution, these popularity polls rank up there with those “which U.S. states are the most obese?” articles. (As if to prove this point, we’re going to add to that phenomenon here.)

Coffee as a favorite yardstick for consumer devotion

In just the past week, we learned from a poll sponsored by the Wi-Fi Alliance that “a week without Wi-Fi would leave us grumpier than a week without coffee or tea.” Meanwhile, we also learned from a survey sponsored by Filterfresh Coffee Service Inc. that most people would “give up their cell phone before their coffee.” But rather than connecting the two to suggest that we’d dump our cell phones in a heartbeat for a week of Wi-Fi, about the only reliable conclusion you can draw from these surveys is that the mobile phone lobby was behind on their research study suggesting the opposite.

This past week were also treated to market research from Mintel suggesting that future coffee consumption is in for a major decline because the younger generation doesn’t drink the stuff. Quoting the cited article in the UK’s Independent:

To target younger drinkers Mintel’s senior analyst Bill Paterson suggests new products are needed to “convert these younger drinkers to everyday users”; otherwise, “long-term growth may suffer.”

The research shows 40 percent of 18-24-year-olds “prefer sweetened coffee drinks to plain coffee… compared to only 22 percent of 45-54-year-olds.”

If this reads like a lame retread of the 1980s, which spawned “innovations” like flavored coffees made to appeal to younger consumers hooked on sugary soft drinks, it’s because it is a lame retread. But should this honestly come as a surprise? Whether it’s the 1950s or the 2010s, how many older adults do you know still eat Super Sugar Bombs™ cereal as a breakfast staple? Or still consume alcohol in the form of drinks with names like “Sex on the Beach” or “Purple Hooter”? The favored flavor palate of younger people has always been different from that of older adults, but if you’re selling product research and advice… if it’s new to you, right?

I am pleased to report that in my own informal survey, 100% of respondents believe that you can construct your surveys to pretty much say anything you want to say — while meanwhile being at liberty to ignore reporting anything you might discover to the contrary.

UPDATE: March 21, 2011
In case anyone thought we were joking about the arbitrary nature of surveys, just a few months after this post comes a new proclamation that: Young adult Americans increase daily coffee drinking | Reuters.

All of which leads us to only believe more in this 2006 piece: Consumers Rebel Against Marketers’ Endless Surveys | News – Advertising Age.