Attitudes about Big Business and Small Business

17 Sep, 2018

Public Affairs Pulse Survey

Attitudes about Big Business and Small Business

Two-thirds of Americans have a favorable opinion of major companies and even more hold positive views of small businesses, reports the 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey.

While people think big businesses provide useful products and services and serve customers well, they are critical of companies for paying high executive salaries and not doing enough to protect the environment, create jobs and support communities.

What shapes opinions about companies? Personal experiences as a customer or employee are the most important factors. For the second year in a row, social media ranks as the least influential among seven factors shaping attitudes about major companies.

Scores for Business and Government

The favorability rating for major companies dropped slightly over the past year, from 69 percent to 67 percent. The percentage giving major companies a “very favorable” rating now stands at 17 percent.

While these are positive scores, they pale in comparison to those received by small businesses. A remarkable 92 percent of Americans give small firms a favorable rating. This total includes 59 percent who say their opinions are “very favorable” — an increase of four percentage points since last year and the largest share of Americans to hold this view since the first Pulse survey was conducted in 2011.

Government, particularly at the federal level, does not fare as well. Six in 10 Americans say they have a favorable view of their state government, compared with 37 percent holding an unfavorable view. But only 45 percent give the federal government favorable scores and 25 percent say their opinions of Washington are not at all favorable.

The Influence of Party Identification and Ideology

U.S. adults across key demographic groups (e.g., gender, age, race, education and income) are fairly consistent in their opinions of major businesses. However, differences of opinion do appear when survey responses are sorted along party and ideological lines.

Seventy-three percent of Republicans have a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of major companies, compared with 66 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents.  Unsurprisingly, favorability also varies by political ideology. A large majority of conservative Americans give positive ratings to big business (75% vs. 19%). Liberals also rate major companies well but by a much narrower margin (54% vs. 42%). Moderates sandwich themselves between the ideological opposites but still think favorably of major companies.

Where Businesses Get It Right and Where They Miss the Mark

In general, Americans believe major companies do a good job of providing useful products and services and meeting the needs of customers and stockholders. They are much more critical, however, about the performance of major companies in other, more controversial areas such as executive compensation.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) give businesses credit for their useful products and services, 65 percent say they serve stockholders well and 64 percent praise their customer service.

Yet nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) think major companies are generally not doing a good job paying their top executives fairly, without over-paying them. Fewer than three in 10 give positive ratings in this area. Though the gap in compensation between top executives and other employees remains a sore point for a majority of the public, this current finding marks the lowest percentage of Americans who feel negatively about executive compensation since the topic was addressed in the first Pulse survey in 2011.

Does this finding also mean more Americans believe compensation for rank-and-file corporate employees is managed equitably? No. Only 35 percent of the public say major companies pay employees fairly, and this number is down slightly from 38 percent in 2011.

A majority of adults continue to be disappointed with the performance of major companies when it comes to job creation, but attitudes are becoming more positive. Forty-three percent think large corporations are performing well in this area. That percentage is comparable to last year (42%) but up dramatically since 2011, when only 24 percent gave companies credit for their efforts to create jobs.

Most people also disapprove of corporate efforts to support local communities, with only 37 percent giving firms a positive score. Despite the growth of corporate sustainability initiatives, only 35 percent say companies do a good job of protecting the environment. Americans in the 18-29 age range are most likely to be critical of big business’s environmental track record, with only 28 percent giving companies a passing grade.

What Influences Americans’ Views?

People’s opinions of big business are shaped primarily by their personal experiences — not by social media, movies and TV shows, according to the Pulse study. One-third of Americans say their direct experience as a customer of a major company has a lot of influence on their views and another 42 percent say this experience has some influence.

Personal experience working for a major company is the second most important factor driving opinion of corporations. Twenty-nine percent say that their employment with a major company has a lot of influence on their views of Corporate America.

The Internet and the news are equally important sources of influence. Twenty-seven percent say both of these factors have a lot of influence on their views of major companies.

For the second year in a row, social media ranks as the least influential among seven factors shaping attitudes about major companies. Only 15 percent say social media has a lot of influence on their opinions of big companies, while 39 percent say social media has no influence whatsoever.

Factors shaping views of major companies vary across certain demographic categories. Americans ages 18-29, non-white adults and those with household incomes below $30,000 are most likely to form their opinions of business based on what they see on the Internet. The same groups also are more likely to rely on social media when forming their opinions, but social media is still not a primary influencer.

The Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted July 6–20, 2015, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, is based on telephone interviews with 1,601 adults nationwide.

2015 Pulse Survey


Laura Horsley
Senior Director of Marketing and Communications
202.787.5963 | email