Daniel Yankelovich, Master of Public Opinion Research, Dies at 92
He focused more on detailing, and explaining, shifting trends in American life: the “generation gap” of the 1960s, the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the neoconservatism of many young people in the 1980s, the emergence of a “me first” self-indulgence in the 1990s, and in recent years a widespread feeling that Americans have no voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
“People feel they don’t have that voice, that they are not consulted, they’re not listened to, their views don’t really count,” Mr. Yankelovich told Bill Moyers in a 2002 PBS interview. But he offered a suggestion:
“We find when we bring average Americans together that they listen to one another, that they can contribute and that they can build, develop a vision of what they want our society to be like. And it’s really inspiring.”
The author of a dozen books and many articles for newspapers, magazines and academic journals, Mr. Yankelovich lectured at Harvard, the New School in New York, the University of California at San Diego and other universities, and was on the boards of corporations and cultural organizations.
In the 1970s, he began The New York Times/Yankelovich poll and developed many survey techniques that The Times and CBS News later jointly used in their coverage of politics and public opinion polling.
In 1975, Mr. Yankelovich and Cyrus R. Vance, who was later President Carter’s secretary of state, founded Public Agenda, a nonprofit foundation that used opinion research and town-hall meetings to engage public officials, educators and citizens on questions of foreign and domestic policy.
While Mr. Yankelovich was not a doctrinaire liberal, he expressed dismay at what he saw as the decline of progressive traditions, and often called for greater social responsibility on the part of government and corporate America. But he also sounded conservative themes in speeches and interviews, praising the work ethic, calling for welfare reforms and lamenting a loss of old-fashioned respect.
He was highly regarded by colleagues for his professional ethics, his imaginative and well-documented polling surveys and the quality of his statistical analyses. But critics sometimes faulted him, saying he worked too fast on complex data, used too much social-scientific jargon in his writing and expressed a habitual optimism that bordered on Pollyanna-ism.
Some of his books were extended arguments, often exhortatory, for self-improvement or for conflict resolution; others were expressions of confidence in democracy or the virtue of ethics in business affairs. The titles reflected his hopeful outlook: “New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down” (1981), “Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World” (1991), “The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation” (1999), and “Profit With Honor: The New Shape of Market Capitalism” (2006).
In 2012, Mr. Yankelovich founded the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at the University of California at San Diego. He later endowed the center with a multimillion-dollar bequest.
Daniel Yankelovich was born in Boston on Dec. 29, 1924, the only child of Frederick Yankelovich and the former Sadie Mostow. His mother died when he was a boy, and his father, a real estate salesman, became a house painter during the Great Depression.
He graduated from Boston Latin School and enrolled at Harvard, but left for Army service in World War II. Returning to Harvard, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 and a master’s in 1950.
After two years in Paris studying at the Sorbonne, he returned without a doctorate and went to work for a market research firm in Connecticut. He spent six years learning the ropes.
Opinion polling was still unsophisticated at the time: Interviewees were not necessarily representative, poll questions contained hidden biases, the data was muddled. Political polls often got it right, but research on consumer preferences and public policy was trickier. Mr. Yankelovich had some new ideas.
In 1958 he founded Daniel Yankelovich Inc. in New York, which made his reputation. One of his first projects was a poll of 300 carefully selected consumers in four regions about imported goods, an idea prompted by the opening in 1959 of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which made it possible to ship directly to the Midwest at lower costs. He found wide interest in imports and cited “an unprecedented opportunity for foreign producers to build up greater consumer acceptance for their goods” in this country.
In 1959, Mr. Yankelovich married Hasmieg Kaboolian. The couple had one daughter, Nicole, and were divorced. In 1991, he married a researcher, Mary Komarnicki. She was killed in 1995 in a car accident in San Diego in which Mr. Yankelovich was injured. He later married Barbara Lee; they were separated at his death. In recent years he lived with his companion, Dr. Laura Nathanson, at White Sands La Jolla, a retirement community.
Besides his daughter, Nicole, and Dr. Nathanson, his immediate survivors include a granddaughter and a sister, Libby Schenkman.
The survey on imported goods was widely publicized, and the Yankelovich agency was soon flourishing. By 1963, he was measuring the effectiveness of television advertising. Volunteers watched commercials; were given money to shop in a mock supermarket, either buying advertised products or keeping the money; and were then questioned about their choices. This provided data on sales and on the rationale behind purchases.
He was among the first, in the 1960s, to refer to the postwar generation as “baby boomers,” and he tracked their lives — from hula-hoops, coonskin caps and Barbie dolls to their rise to success in educated two-earner families and beyond. In their mature years, he found a “nameless yearning” for deeper meaning, which he called “submerged idealism,” lying “just below the surface of the pragmatism and calculation.”
Mr. Yankelovich developed the concept of segmenting test markets by lifestyle rather than by demographics alone. He also expanded his analyses to include social and cultural trends and began publishing annual surveys that tracked such changes.
His studies of American youths became the basis for a 1969 CBS television news special, “Generations Apart.” Later surveys focused on college students’ attitudes and drug use.
By 1970, Yankelovich had become one of the largest market-research companies in the country, with a client list that included CBS, The New York Times, Fortune magazine, AT&T, General Electric, I.B.M., General Motors, Procter & Gamble, RCA, Volkswagen of America and the United States government.
The company became Yankelovich, Skelly & White in 1974, in recognition of the contributions by the executive vice presidents Florence Skelly and Arthur White. Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency, later bought the company, but Mr. Yankelovich remained chairman until 1986, when he formed a new firm, Daniel Yankelovich Group.
Conducting research for President Clinton in the 1990s, Mr. Yankelovich helped him begin a “reinventing government” project that was intended to make government leaner and more relevant to citizens. The approach stole a march on Republicans, who had painted the Democrats as the party of big government.
With I. M. Destler he edited a collection of essays, “Beyond the Beltway: Engaging the Public in U.S. Foreign Policy” (1994).
During George W. Bush’s presidency, Mr. Yankelovich tracked a long decline in public confidence in Washington’s ability to achieve goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, hunt terrorists, protect American borders and safeguard jobs in a troubled economy. In the administration’s waning days, he found that 85 percent of Americans believed the nation was on the wrong track.
In a speech at the Drucker Institute in Claremont, Calif., in late 2008, Mr. Yankelovich enumerated overwhelming national problems — the financial meltdown, the soaring debt, lost standing in the world, runaway health and education costs — and, typically, offered his vision of a way out of the mess. He called it “The New Pragmatism,” and insisted that it would soon spread across America.
“It’s going to occur,” he said, certitude rising in his New England accent, “through entrepreneurship and innovative thinking at all levels of society: individual, commercial, public, nonprofit, private, institutional, and all of these in interlocking, interacting ways.”
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