Around eight million people watch The Apprentice and the show has made household names of Lord Sugar, Nick Hewer, Karren Brady and others. The popularity of The Apprentice, and similar business focused shows like Dragons' Den, might suggest the public are enthusiastic supporters of business and entrepreneurism. This is not, however, the case.
Instead, the British public are, generally, sceptical of big businesses and their behaviour. Many view them as organisations to be tolerated and controlled, not as something to admire or celebrate.
In part, this is because the public feel disconnected from big business. Fewer than one-in-five (17%) feel they have a good understanding of how big businesses operate. A third (34%) go as far as saying that big business "exists in a different world to me". Perhaps part of the appeal of The Apprentice is that it offers some type of insight, however contrived, into a world few understand.
Beyond this, the public rarely associate big businesses with positive developments or good news stories. Each week we track the Top Ten Most Noticed business news stories amongst the public. None of the most noticed stories so far in 2015 could be described as positive. From the Volkswagen emissions scandal, to HSBC's tax evasion allegations, or Tesco's profit warnings and losses, the stories the public notice are always those of businesses behaving badly or in difficulty.
These more recent controversies, following so soon after those that afflicted the banking sector and supermarket sector, have undermined trust and confidence in all business. Consider:
- 64% agree that "if given a chance, big businesses will rip-off customers"
- Just 43% trust big businesses to keep their data safe
- Only 40% trust big businesses "to be honest with me"
Little wonder, therefore, that the public favour a tougher approach to business. A clear majority, 71%, favour Government taking a firm stance on big business. There are few proposed regulations on big business the public don't support, with the majority supporting health warnings on sugary drinks, a bonus cap, a maximum wage for managers, compulsory worker representation on Boards, and the abolition of non-dom status.
When Lord Sugar eventually chooses his Apprentice they will receive £250,000 to start their own business and here, finally, is some good news for business. While just one-in-five (19%) feels positively about multinational corporations and only 25% view publicly listed companies in a good light, these figures increase significantly for some types of businesses. Entrepreneurs, like those on The Apprentice, are viewed positively by 46%, small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) are well-regarded by 49%, and family-owned firms the most popular with two thirds (66%) seeing them in a favourable light.
Whatever the reasons people watch The Apprentice, it isn't because they trust or respect big businesses. Here then is a conundrum for the candidates; having persuaded Lord Sugar to back them, they can count on public support only so long as they remain small entrepreneurs or run SMEs rather than becoming more successful and creating a larger multinational or publicly listed company.