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We crave biggest and best, but small is new reality

We drove our suburban tanks through the street, bloated and sloshing with gasoline.

We squeezed into the drive-through for a triple bacon burger with extra cheese, and don't forget the super-whoa-megafry!

We wanted the biggest and the best and the most.

But, oops. We started to run out of money. The planet got hot and our waists flopped over our belts.

So things got smaller.

And smaller.

And now?

Sliders. Shot-glass tiramisu. Tiny laptops, tiny cans and tiny cars.

We are wee.

• • •

The restlessness … approached hysteria. The parties were bigger. The shows were bigger. The pace was faster … the buildings higher, the morals looser. — F. Scott Fitzgerald describing life in 1927

Wages are up. People have jobs. One cent buys a huge dish of Quaker oats.

Herbert Hoover promises a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.

A huge sign reading HOLLYWOODLAND goes up in the hills of California, glistening with 50-foot letters covered in thousands of bulbs.

The average woman wears 2 pounds of face powder each year and tosses grand strings of pearls over her shoulder in a knot.

During a parade in New York, 1,800 tons of ticker tape, newspaper and shredded phone books are tossed into the street.

It costs $16,000 to clean up.

Human beings crave the best.

The idea of scarcity makes us feel afraid, so our instinct is to gather as much as we can. What we want depends on our friends, our neighbors, the television, magazines.

When our pals order an extra scoop of ice cream, we say: What the heck, me, too. We buy big houses on shaky mortgages and no money down because the culture says it's fine.

"There is still fascination with the biggest," said Marian Friestad, a University of Oregon marketing professor. "The roots are in the biology of our body there."

Hummers started out as a utilitarian military vehicle. Eventually, average folks were driving them to church. Kids went to the prom in stretch Hummers. Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for his fleet.

Smaller SUVs ruled through the late 1990s and 2000s, until gas prices slammed pockets. Supersize menus sizzled until a guy filmed himself getting fat on McDonald's.

"We were on this gluttonous rampage for a while," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist.

As the cost to produce food shot up, products shrank — even if prices didn't.

Coffee, formerly by the pound, was sold in 12-ounce bags. Bars of soap and cereal boxes dwindled. So did orange juice, yogurt, soda cans, Girl Scout cookies and ice cream. So did paychecks and 401(k)s and the size of the newspaper.

Trends shrank, too, because change happens when things sway to the extreme — politics, real estate, laws, pop culture.

"As things kind of escalate and escalate, at some point, there will be a correction, and there will be a counter trend," said Friestad, who studies consumer behavior. "Sometimes it happens naturally. Sometimes it's forced on you by circumstances."

• • •

This year, when we all needed something to take our minds off our troubles, miniature golf did it. Elmer Davis describing life in 1930

The stock market has crashed, sending the country into the Great Depression. People wait in line for jobs and bread. They live in squalor.

Classical music seasons are shortened. New, smaller jazz clubs open.

A Hormel ad likens 20-cent onion soup to something Louis XV of France would eat.

A cheap "baby" combine harvester is promoted. Packard, a luxury automaker, makes its first affordable model.

Spam minihams debut. For the first time, beer is sold in cans.

The biggest box office star is a tiny girl with curls named Shirley Temple.

• • •

Smart cars are so small, the company even likes to make the first letter lowercase.

Since they came to America from Europe in 2008, sales figures have been steady.

"We've been up every month," said Ken Kettenbeil, spokesman for the car. "We're fortunate in light of the economy."

All kinds have shopped at Clearwater's dealership. Teen girls getting their first cars. Old people getting their last. Grown men who pose for photos towering over them.

They're good for the environment and the wallet, said Clearwater brand manager Miguel Bartoli. They save on gas. When fuel prices were highest, he saw people trade in Hummers.

Also …

"Quite honestly, it's fun," Bartoli said.

How 'bout cute?

"I don't want to use the word 'cute,' because I'm a guy and I drive one, but … "

Cute sandwiches, or sliders, have popped up on most restaurant menus — Burger King Burger Shots. Chick-fil-A Chick-n-Minis. McDonald's Snack Wrap. KFC Snacker.

It's still fried chicken and burgers, points out Harry Balzer, a food researcher with the NPD Group market research company. It's just portion controlled.

"I like having small burgers because I like burgers," he said. "It's a good thing you're giving me small burgers as opposed to small jicama."

Smaller restaurant portions, like ones offered at T.G.I. Friday's, help us watch our calories. They try to help us control spending when we don't have as much to spend.

They also play right into our human nature.

"How can I have it?" Balzer said. "I still want it all."

• • •

The teeny cakes tease from a single glass case. They nestle in your palm and take four bites to demolish.

When the economy got worse, the cupcake business thrived. After more than a year in Tampa, the owners of the Cupcake Spot decided to open a new spot in St. Petersburg in January.

The cupcakes sell out every day. "They're very personal," said St. Petersburg manager Alex Stark. "You don't have to share."

Maybe people can't afford to have fancy dinner, but they can swing a cupcake. Maybe they can't buy their son a truckload of birthday gifts, but they can get him a cupcake.

They're just so … little.

"It's going back to when you were very young," Stark said. "Everything was smaller. Your toys, your chair, your spoon, your clothes."

Your food.

Stark thought about it.

"Maybe it makes you feel bigger."

Information from the book "American Chronicle, Seven Decades in American Life," was used in this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.

We crave biggest and best, but small is new reality 04/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:06pm]
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