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A census is a periodic governmental enumeration of a population. Census data describe the state of a nation, area by area. Countries throughout the world collect census information. Many, such as India, the U.K. and the U.S., conduct full population counts every 10 years—known as a decennial census. Governments use the gathered information for social and financial planning, while marketers use it to make product, distribution, promotion and pricing decisions.

In the U.S, a census has been taken every 10 years since 1790. The government agency responsible is the Bureau of the Census, an organization with 12 permanent regional offices that was created in 1902. Census information is desirable commercially because it is an impartial and virtually free source of information. Businesses and advertising agencies use these data in several ways; for example, census information helps to predict, with some accuracy, the demand for certain types of businesses, the growth of various market segments and the lifestyles of consumers.

For example, advertisers often cite population numbers when providing a rationale for pursuing a certain segment of the market. In 1950, the Census Bureau reported that average life expectancy was 68 years; at the end of the 20th century, the bureau reported that life expectancy had risen to 82 years. These data could have far-reaching implications for the healthcare and leisure industries; as a result, several companies developed products that appeal specifically to older adults.

The 2000 census (www.census.gov) showed similar kinds of trends. It reported nearly half of the U.S. population had moved within the last five years and that the percentage of Americans older than 18 with a high school education had grown to 80.4% (from 75.2%). Most notably, it showed a 53% increase in the number of citizens of Mexican origin, which was responsible for the sharp increase in the percentage of Hispanics in America, to 12.5% of the population from 9% in the previous census.

In recent years, a combination of privacy concerns and a need for up-to-date information on more detailed subjects has pushed the Census Bureau to develop more current survey methods, and the bureau has responded with its American Community Survey. The decennial census, however, still provides the census backbone, surveying far more individuals and validating the other surveys.

How the U.S. Census developed

Between 1880 and 1900, statisticians began to develop more sophisticated interpretations of the information collected by the U.S. census. During the early 1900s, the Census Bureau became involved with data gathering and conducted more frequent surveys at all times of the year. Thus, information was available to advertising agencies on a more timely basis than previously.

Starting with the 1960 census, the government increasingly separated out data such as per capita income and population density. Commercially those two measures were important because they gave businesses and ad agencies more information on different segments of consumers. They could now identify specific areas of the U.S. on the basis of per capita income. Those measurements also made the targeting of advertisements much easier.

In the 1960 census, information was provided for smaller and smaller geographic areas, data on educational attainment was broadened, and data about place of work and means of transportation to work were collected. This information provided ad agencies with more specific lifestyle data than had been available previously, enabling agencies to be more accurate with projections and strategy planning.

Census information about the racial makeup of the U.S. was used by ad agencies and businesses to segment their marketing efforts by race as well as to determine the location of people from various racial backgrounds. The census detected the post-World War II birthrate increase, which prompted the coining of the term “baby boomers” to describe individuals born during this era. Recognition of the rise in births allowed advertisers and businesses to focus their attention on the growing population of new mothers and to promote products for infants and children. The 1970 census was the first to be distributed by mail. It was also decided then that more detailed information was needed on African-Americans and other minority populations.

For the 1990 census, the bureau block-numbered the entire country and had counts for each of the 8 million to 12 million blocks. Advertisers and businesses then analyzed the information on a block level. They identified the demographic characteristics of the people living within the blocks, which provided the accuracy that clients wanted.

The 2000 census was played out against a political controversy over whether each person should be counted individually, in the time-honored way, or whether sampling techniques, widely used in advertising research, should be employed to adjust results. Advocates for minority groups contended that their numbers would be undercounted using the traditional method because of the inability or reluctance of many people—immigrants and the homeless, for example—to complete census forms. They favored sampling as the way to ensure the most accurate count. Others held that the Constitution required a traditional count and that it was each citizen’s responsibility to respond.

From a political standpoint, sampling would be likely to show increases in the number of economically disadvantaged individuals and members of minority ethnic and racial groups. It was believed these increases would have an impact on the redrawing of congressional districts in a manner favorable to the election of Democrats. On the other hand, a traditional count could overlook many in these groups, which would diminish their impact in congressional redistricting and presumably favor Republicans, who at the time had a majority in both houses of Congress. Congress ruled that the Census Bureau would conduct a traditional count.

Advertising the census

From 1950 through 1990, U.S. censuses relied on pro bono advertisements to promote participation. For the 2000 census, paid advertising was used for the first time in U.S. history. The $130 million campaign from Y&R Advertising was themed "This is your future. Don’t leave it blank." It promoted census awareness and participation, especially among those segments of the population that historically have had a low response rate.

The 2000 decennial U.S. census provided a wealth of information to marketers, offering confirmation of what had been a developing picture of a changing population.

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