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JWT survey finds confidence in U.K. basics but frustration over status quo

15 January 2008 – Asked to choose which time period in the U.K. from 1967-2017 they would prefer to live in, almost half of British adults would wind back the clock at least 30 years, with close to one-third choosing to go back 40 years. This is among the findings from an online survey of 1,006 British adults that explored attitudes toward the past and present, commissioned by JWT, the fourth largest advertising agency network in the world.

“This is one of those times in the U.K. when it feels like the arc of another decade has drawn to a close,” says Ann Mack, Director of Trendspotting at JWT. “It’s been 10 years since New Labour was voted in on a wave of optimism and Princess Diana died. With a new prime minister in 10 Downing Street, this is an ideal moment for us to take stock of the nation’s mood, both past and present.”

When respondents were asked to choose from dates between 1967 and 2017 in the U.K., about two-thirds (67%) chose dates in the past. Not surprisingly then, when asked to rate how the U.K. is doing now, just 1% of respondents said “excellent,” while 23% said “poor”; a majority chose “fair” (54%), and an upbeat 23% chose “very well.” Just 12% agreed that “We are leaving our children a better world than our parents left to us,” while 63% disagreed.

Predictably, the 1960s and ’70s appealed most to respondents over age 50 (47% and 16%, respectively, chose those time periods), but some younger respondents also saw the appeal of the past. Among the 18-29s, a total of one-fifth chose the pre-Eighties decades (13% for 1967 and 7% for 1977); that went up to one-third for the 30-39 set (18% and 14%).

Music and fashion were certainly part of the appeal, but respondents also saw the past as a simpler, less stressful time, characterised by a greater sense of security, morality, freedom and community. A young woman (aged 18-24) who chose 1967 explained, “People actively protested against things they didn’t like and were much more concerned about the world and other people than I think they are today. I also think it was safer and people were happier and less stressed.”

A man in the 45-49 age group put it this way: “The economy was more stable, crime was low, people lived in communities and cared for those that lived in their community, jobs were available for everybody, illicit drugs were rare, gun crime was extremely rare, the cost of living was far cheaper, politicians were not as corrupt, politicians had a high moral standing and were an example to follow, and society had a high moral standard compared with today.“

The survey wasn’t all crusty Brits longing for happier times. Almost one-fifth (19%) opted for the present, and a fair percentage (14%) wanted to fast-forward 10 years. In fact, the year 2017 was preferred by a quarter of the under-30s (23%) and even 10% of the over-50s.

Excitement about technology was a big factor in favor of 2017. A man over 50 observed: “Technology is progressing at such an enormous rate, I think it will be a very exciting period to live in despite the current problems in the world.” Respondents were also curious to see whether and how these problems may be resolved. In the words of one thirtysomething male, “I think the U.K., like the [rest of the] world, is facing many challenges at the moment, and I am intrigued to see exactly where we will be in 2017, as at present I do not have a lot of confidence in our leaders to do the right thing in all of our interests.”

Respondents were given a list of key events in recent history and asked to say which had the most impact overall. One quarter (25%) opted for the war in Iraq, closely followed by 22% for Thatcherism (the government and legacy of Margaret Thatcher). After that came European Union membership (18%), the July 2005 London bombings (16%), New Labour (10%), Princess Diana’s death (9%) and the dot-com meltdown (1%).

Looking at the open-ended comments from those who chose Thatcherism, some 38 were positive compared with 94 negative and another 56 neutral or mixed. The balance was less favorable among those who chose New Labour; just five comments were positive, 16 were neutral or mixed and 75 were negative. EU membership garnered six positive comments, 25 mixed or neutral and 102 negative. The most negatively viewed event was the Iraq war: There were 208 negative comments, 38 neutral or mixed and just one positive.

Focusing on the more recent past, respondents were asked to say whether a number of descriptors applied more to 1997 or to 2007. The weight of opinion tilted toward 1997 for humorous, optimistic, confident and, especially, friendly (51% clearly attributed it to 1997 vs. just 8% to 2007). On the other hand, less positive descriptors were clearly attributed to 2007: arrogant (51%), cautious (51%), upset (51%) and anxious (60%). Attributions of creative, innovative and vibrant were balanced between the two years.

Specific areas of concern about the U.K. were apparent from respondents’ perceptions of how the country is viewed by others. Asked whether other countries look up to or down on the U.K. across a number of areas, the verdict was net positive in 12 areas, led by “historical legacy, traditions and cultural heritage” (net positive 72%), “current and contemporary culture” (41%) and “protecting human rights” (34%). Problem areas were those where perceptions netted out clearly negative: “government and politics” (net negative 18%), “foreign policy” (25%), “racial tensions” (36%) and, above all, “immigration policy” (47%).

“It’s tempting to see this survey as yet another example of the British being stuck-in-the-past pessimists and perpetual gripers but we also see a lot of idealism there, a longing for the sort of values the British aspire to: tolerance, fairness, decency and mutual respect,” Ann Mack says. “Much of the apparent negativity is actually frustration over disappointed hopes and anger that these values seem to have been lost by society and betrayed by politicians.”

Indeed, a clear majority of 63% agreed that the U.K. has a lot to offer the world, compared with just 11% who disagreed. Added Ann Mack: “For marketers, the challenge, and the opportunity, is to enable the British to see their values being applied authentically without lapsing into cynical parody or cloying sentimentality.”

The survey yielded a balance of adult men and women (49% and 51%). Just under half of the sample was in their 50s (45%), with the rest spread equally across the age brackets 18-29, 30-39 and 40-49. The average age of the sample was 42.5.

For further information please contact:

Bella Hignett
CK Publicity

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