Lists Are Taking Over America

97 Perfect Things
Men's Journal List
This report originally aired on September 23, 2007.

Here's three things you should know about lists:

1.  They're everywhere - on TV, in the movies and on the radio.

2.  They're getting longer than ever. How about "1,000 Thousand Places to See Before You Die"?

3.  And nowadays, there's a list for just about everything, becoming an American obsession.

"If you want her to be into you, here's how to do it. If you want your kid to quit calling you from jail every Thursday night, here's the six things that you ought to do," proffered Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

"Ten things you've gotta do to your kid before he or she reaches six months old. Ten things to do before you go to bed every night. I mean, life is complicated. Lists aren't."

Nowhere are lists bigger these days than at the newsstand. There's 998 fitness and beauty tricks, seven hot businesses that can make you rich, four guys every girl should date, three fundamentals for prevailing in a gunfight. And then there's Men's Health, with at least a dozen lists and some 2,000 tips every issue. And the number one reason why? Lists sell.

At a Men's Health editorial meeting, lists are at the top of the list.

"Let's have fun with it like, is there, you know, 'Ten or 15 signs she's cheating' is always a great one. That's always very popular."

David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men's Health, said, "We've done fifteen things a man fears. We've done, you know, our 101 best and worst cities.

"We take our lists very seriously in Men's Health. We have them throughout the magazine. And we know for a fact that they work. When we put lists or numbers on the cover, our newsstand sales go up."

Men's Health is now published everywhere from China to Russia to Greece, and calls itself the largest men's magazine brand in the world. Zinczenko says all those lists are perfect for guys with short attention spans.

"It tells you right up front how long it's probably going to take you to read the list," Zinczenko said. "If it says, 'Five things,' you're like, 'Yeah, you know what? I've got a couple minutes. I'll read that.' If it's a hundred things, or a thousand-and-one, 'Maybe I need a Fresca and a tuna sandwich, and a Barcalounger.' Lists are just perfect ways to communicate information to readers."

Professor Thompson says the list approach to self-improvement reflects a culture of undying hope.

"The idea that we're just the right shoe away from a happy relationship. It's a ridiculous idea. But it's one we always hold onto. Even though the last 25 shoes we bought didn't make us happy, maybe this one."

America has grown up, he says, with the belief that a new beginning is just around the corner.

"And the list then comes in, 'Here's what I've got to do.' The most I think charming of those lists would be those of Ben Franklin. Here's this guy, you know, a printer, runs away from home in Boston, goes to Philadelphia and makes this list of how he's going to become a 'New American.'"

Franklin developed his self-improvement list - he called it his '13 Virtues' - at the age of 20. He clearly wasn't looking for better abs; his goals were temperance, sincerity and humility, among others. But even Franklin's wasn't the first self improvement list.

"The ten commandments is the ultimate list that one could ever imagine. If you could have a Hall of Fame of lists, that would certainly be the one," Thompson said.

In a way, there is a Hall of Fame of lists. It's in David Wallechinsky's library. He collects lists.

He's the author of "The Book of Lists." Six hundred pages of lists, from "10 Unusual Medical Conditions" to "12 Places With More Sheep Than Humans."

Blackstone asked the listkeeper, what are his three favorite lists?

"First of all, the 'Ten Worst Living Dictators.' I really, really always keep my eye out for - and please, if anybody out there knows them - sausage events, sausage-related events."

"Trying hard to expand your list of unusual sausage events?" Blackstone said.

"If somebody attacks somebody with a sausage …"

Wallechinsky updates his list of ten worst living dictators every year in Parade Magazine.

"Parade gets a lot of letters: 'Our dictator is worse than you said he was, and he should be moved up the list!' And then occasionally, you know, the ambassador from Swaziland, "How dare you include King Mswati III as a dictator? We now have a constitution.' Well, I've read that constitution, you know? And you know, it allows a debtors' prison, you know? And it allows him to overrule anything.

"Well, great. You have a constitution. So what?"

From a list of dictators, to lists that dictate your life: In an upcoming movie called "The Bucket List," Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman make a list of things to do before they kick the bucket.

"When I got this project, I went, ooooh, this resonates really strongly with me," director Rob Reiner said, "because I do think about, you know, have I lived a meaningful life? Have I done what I need to do to express myself artistically, and then more importantly, have I done what I need to do with my children? With my wife? With my friends? Have i lived a decent life, you know?"

Reiner says that many aging baby boomers have similar thoughts and as a result, they put pen to paper.

"There's a good and a bad to lists. One is, you know, things to aspire to, goals and things you'd like to reach. Another is, 'Ooooh, what if I don't make them all? What if, you know, in the middle of this conversation I drop dead? I didn't do all the things I was supposed to do!' That's the downside of a list."

So if a life list is on your to-do list, there are plenty of books around now suggesting things to add. And from authors to magazine editors to filmmakers, the list of people making lists has no end in sight.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.