The BBC made headlines this week with the news that Strictly Come Dancing will not change its format and introduce same-sex dance partners despite calls from former contestants and current judges to do so.
To my ear, this action – or rather, inaction – feels out of step with societal progress on attitudes toward homosexuality, and certainly with the prevailing trend among businesses falling over themselves to embrace Pride in recent months. In exploring Strictly’s decision however, a useful lesson emerges in the analysis of trends: changes to mainstream social attitudes are slow.
Strictly Come Dancing has long been the BBC’s flagship Saturday night show, and – alongside Great British Bake Off – has often had the highest viewership of any television show in the country annually either through the live final or the final results show. Crucially, this audience is older than the UK population as a whole – 60% of the audience for the Strictly final in December 2016 were aged 55 or above, with this group representing just 38% of the population. What’s more, there are significant differences between generations in their acceptance of homosexuality.
While it can feel – in our daily lives mediated by echo chambers and filter bubbles – that significant progress has been made on societal acceptance of homosexuality in a relatively short space of time, the chart above (produced using data from the British Social Attitudes Survey) details some important features of how social attitudes change across an entire society over time – and why this change can be so slow.
Firstly, within generational cohorts – particularly since the late 1990s – there tends to be relatively little change over time in attitudes toward homosexuality; there have been declines in the extent to which people in each cohort believe that homosexuality is wrong, but in the majority of cases, the attitudes developed in your formative years remain with you throughout adulthood. Secondly, each generational cohort has a more progressive view than the one before it, and it is this aspect of demographic transition that results in leaps in progress rather than the widespread transformation of attitudes within individuals.
Strictly remains heavily reliant on audiences aged 55 and over – those born in 1963 and earlier – and while those born in the 1960s have attitudes on homosexuality largely in line with those born in the 1970s and 1980s, those born in the 1950s and earlier display significantly higher levels of ‘traditional’ or illiberal attitudes toward homosexuality.
This is Strictly’s constituency, and while the programme must consider both the push factors that may drive their audience away, as well as the pull factors that might bring in new, younger viewers, when there is such a concentrated, older audience, it is not difficult to imagine how these kinds of decisions are made.
The controversy speaks to a trend that we have discussed a lot at Trajectory in relation to the difficulties brands face in positioning themselves politically in such polarised times, with the growth in campaigns like Stop Funding Hate and the trials and tribulations of brands like Domino’s, Kellogg’s and New Balance. Often we have spoken about the need for careful planning, and an educated understanding of the considerations and consequences that will increasingly become inherent to all business decision-making, but as the BBC – and other brands have shown – it is almost impossible to act in the best interests of your brand or product without attracting criticism from one side of the divide.
This is not a fleeting issue. The UK population is ageing, and with life expectancy increasing, conservative attitudes toward issues like homosexuality will persist for decades, and decisions made to attract, or keep, these audiences will appear prejudiced by younger, more progressive consumers. The polarisation of our political – or even demographic – context means that any action or inaction will receive strong criticism, but understanding how to alienate fewer of your most important demographics will become an ever more crucial factor in branding.