Amer. standard scale
What Britain really thinks about going metric
metric scale

Conclusive evidence of the unpopularity of
metric measures in all age groups

From The Yardstick, number 6, March 1998

Until recently we quoted the 1995 Gallup survey for evidence to support our contention that the general public continues to think in terms of imperial units and prefers to do so rather than convert to metric. The Trago Mills survey of its own customers last August, although only a local exercise, provided valuable current corroboration, showing that 83% favour pints against 15% for litres (Gallup 87/10), 82% pounds v. 16% kilograms (Gallup 87/10), 72% yards v. 25% metres (69/26), 87% miles v. 11% kilometres (95/3), etc.

In December, however, we were presented with all the evidence concerning popular opinion that we could want, in the form of a scientific, independent, comprehensive, nation-wide survey commissioned by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Ltd, one of Britain's biggest advertising agencies, and conducted by Research Services Ltd, a leading market research company. Its key findings are:

  • 74% of the public find imperial units more convenient than metric;
  • the preference for customary measures covers all age-groups, even the metric-educated 15-24 year-olds, and all regions of the country;
  • only 7% are in favour of government policy which would make all printing and packaging (for labelling and display, and including ingredients in published recipes) exclusively metric; whereas three times as many (21%) favour sole use of imperial units, and ten times as many (70%) would prefer a system of dual marking (allowing customers to use whichever is convenient for any requirement).

Christopher Booker's feature in The Sunday Telegraph on 21st December, brilliantly publicized this report. The Guardian carried a prominent account of it on 2nd January.

Please take every opportunity of quoting these results in correspondence with officials! The public are clearly on our side.


What Britain really thinks about going metric

(Extracts from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Ltd's report, November 1997)


The research:

  • A survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 British adults aged 15+, carried out by RSL in November 1997.

The findings:

  • An overwhelming majority of the British public (74%) find feet and inches, pints and pounds, to be more convenient for most everyday purposes than their metric equivalents.
  • The preference for customary units is stronger than that for metric across all age groups, including the metric-educated 15-24s, and across all regions of the country.
  • Women are significantly more likely to prefer customary measures than men. 82% say they find the Imperial system more convenient for most everyday purposes.
  • Only a tiny minority — 7% — are in favour of the current move towards printing the packaging for goods, and the ingredients listed in recipes, solely in metric measurements.
  • Three times as many — 21% — would prefer these to be given in Imperial measures only.
  • Ten times as many — 70% — would prefer a system of dual labelling, which would allow the consumer to choose the system which suited him or her the best.

The companies:

  • RSL is one of Britain's most respected independent market research companies.
  • Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Ltd. is Britain's leading advertising agency.


by Warwick Cairns, Board Planning Director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO LTD

Why is it that boy-racer motorists in their early twenties will tell you how many 'miles per gallon' their souped-up Ford Escorts will do, when so few of them will ever have bought petrol in anything but litres? Why is it that children, when you ask them how tall they are, or how much they weigh, will give you the answer in feet and inches and stones and pounds, when all they have ever learned at school is metres and kilograms? And why is it that so many cooks still talk about 'half a pound of butter', when butter has been sold, for years, in 250g blocks?

The received wisdom has it that people do these things because metrication is still in a transitional stage. People — and particularly young people — are mainly metric nowadays, the received wisdom says, but occasionally they will use the 'old' system, where they have to, in a dwindling number of circumstances. But things, it is thought, are changing: already, most packaged goods come in metric sizes, and more and more manufacturers and retailers are dropping the 'supplementary' Imperial equivalents (the little figures in brackets that tell you how much 250 grams are in ounces, for example) from their packs. More and more recipes in books and newspapers and magazines are printed in metric units only. In the next few years, some of the last bastions of the 'old' system — street markets and shops selling loose goods — will be required by law to make the switch, or risk heavy fines or imprisonment. This is felt to be what people want, and to be in everybody's interest. When the legal process is complete, the received wisdom has it that Britain's customary weights and measures will be abandoned altogether, and will come to be regarded merely as historical curiosities.

This research has been designed to test the received wisdom. It has two aims:

  • To see which system of measurements people in Britain — both young and old — really feel most comfortable with.
  • To see whether they actually want all of the goods they buy, and all the instructions and articles and recipes they read, to be wholly metric.


Between the 14th and the 18th of November 1997, a random sample of 1,000 British adults aged 15+ were interviewed in their homes by executives of the research company RSL's computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) division.

The sample was chosen to be nationally representative, using the same 58 Area Groupings used by the National Readership Survey (NRS), based on the Registrar-General's 11 Standard regions and the 12 ISBA television regions. All areas of the country (excluding the Shetlands and Orkney Islands) were covered. Quota controls were set for age and sex, for social class and for the balance of the kinds of areas the respondents lived in (as determined by the ACORN housing type classification).

They were each asked two questions, and given a range of multiple-choice answers to choose from.


1. Thinking about weights and measures, which kinds of measurement do you generally find most convenient for everyday purposes?

(a) Imperial measurements such as feet & inches, pounds and pints

(b) Metric measurements such as metres, kilograms and litres

2. On packaging for food and drink and in publications such as cookery books and magazines, how do you think weights and measures should be classified?

(a) Pounds and pints only; (b) Kilograms and litres only; (c) Both systems


Overall preference, and preference by sex

  • An overwhelming majority of the British public — 74% — say that they generally find the Imperial system more convenient for everyday purposes.
  • Women in particular prefer British customary measures — 82% say they find Imperial more convenient, compared with only 12% who prefer metric.

Preference by age

  • Teenagers and young adults in their early twenties are more well-disposed towards the metric system: 43% say that they find it most convenient. However...
  • ...even amongst this age group — the product of a wholly Metric education system — a clear majority (51%) say that they find Imperial most convenient for everyday purposes.

Preference by region

  • There is a clear and huge majority preferring pounds, pints, feet and inches across the country.
  • However, in urban and industrialised areas like London and the East Midlands, the preference for Imperial is a little less pronounced than it is in more rural regions.

Classification of packaged goods/recipes etc.

  • When given the choice of how packaged goods should be labelled, and how recipes should be published, the current 'official policy' — metric only — was favoured only by a tiny minority (7%).
  • Three times as many people — 21% — favoured Imperial only.
  • Ten times as many — 70% — wanted dual labelling, allowing them the choice of systems.
  • The preference for dual labelling was overwhelming across all age groups.
  • The 15-24 age-group — the most split in terms of the systems they used in everyday life — was far more united in favour of dual labelling. Only 14% of 16-24s preferred metric-only. This compares with 16% preferring Imperial only, and 68% preferring dual labelling.

We are immensely grateful to Warwick Cairns, Board Planning Director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Ltd, for supplying us with copies of the full report, and his expert statistical analysis, free of charge.




31 oct 99