How the Census Impacts Your Media Plan

The AdAgeStat Q&A With Census Director Robert Groves

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AdAgeStat had the opportunity to chat via phone with the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Robert Groves, as he was riding between buildings near the Capitol. While he says, "I'm not in [advertising], but I have in the past speculated about that business," he offered plenty of insight for marketers, addressed concerns tweeted by @adagestat followers and explained why we need to lobby Congress now for better data.

This is part one of the AdAgeStat Q&A. It covers advice for marketers on lessons and pitfalls from Census data. Part two, later this week, will dive a little deeper into some of the questions for data geeks. Stay tuned.

AdAgeStat: Your congressional mandate is related to the apportionment of the House of Representatives. Yet you collect a ton of other data. What do we gain from that ?

Robert Groves
Robert Groves

Mr. Groves: I think the trends that are always commented on every 10 years have to do with the changing age structure of the country and on that score, the 2010 census tells us despite this immigration of younger folks, we continue to be an aging society. We're not replacing ourselves with cohorts of younger people at the same rate that the older folks are present.

Since the 1940s this country especially is interested in racial and ethnic distributions. With the decennial census data, the biggest story is the growth of the Hispanic population. There's a sub-story that doesn't come from the decennial census that comes from the American Community Survey (ACS) about the commensurate growth in the foreign-born population. These are notable things for advertisers. The delivering of a message about a product or a service is best done when the advertiser understands the lens through which a consumer is viewing both the culture they're in ... and how their own experiences map onto it. New immigrants and the growth of the foreign-born population are relevant lenses that determine how people interpret messages and make decisions about what products and services they need.

AdAgeStat: What can we learn just by looking at a big pile of numbers?

Mr. Groves: We're turning into a heavily multicultural society. The second thing to note about that is that it's a different mixing site of the multiple cultures from earlier decades where immigration took place mainly on the coasts of the country. Because of modern transportation and a lot of other things, the cultural mixes are all over the place -- even in small towns. That is a finding of the 2010 census that will be highlighted over the coming months.

The assimilation of new immigrant groups won't be through the big cities as much as it was before -- it's going to be through smaller towns. This is a moment in history we haven't seen in hundreds of year. If you're an advertiser and you're assuming that the cities are different and you do media buys differently for the big urban areas than elsewhere, I'm not sure that 's going to be true anymore. You'll have to be culturally sensitive even in the smaller media markets where you may not have been before.

There's also a fascinating but still small group that on the census form checked two race boxes. This group is one of the fastest-growing percentage groups in the country with increases between 40% and 60% for the last 10 years. Now what's interesting about this group? Well, one is that this is a self-identification. They have chosen to say, "I have two racial backgrounds." Secondly, I think the people doing that are probably also bicultural to the extent that race groups also imply an adherence to certain cultural norms. They're actually very valuable people in the society because they pass between and negotiate multiple cultures simultaneously.

AdAgeStat: How is that useful for advertisers?

Mr. Groves: I was talking to the Advertising Research Foundation and if I were in advertising research I would probably oversample those people for focus group numbers because they could alert advertisers to whether the messages work in both culture they hold. This is a precious resource for researchers. That's a relatively new phenomenon and it's going to be interesting to watch that group over time.

AdAgeStat: Speaking of , I was disappointed in our Commander in Chief for setting a bad example with the inaccuracy of his census form. [President Obama has disclosed that he selected "black" as his race on his 2010 Census form instead of checking both white and black, which would be more technically correct.]

Dir. Groves: Well this is self-identification, you gotta remember this.

AdAgeStat: Does the Census have an official stance on that ?

Dir. Groves: No. [Laughter]

AdAgeStat: What are some pitfalls we can make when reading Census data?

Dir. Groves: You can make misinterpretations about subgroups. For example, grouping all Hispanics together and making statements about them ignores a huge variation on all sorts of attributes among the Puerto Ricans and the Cubans and the Mexicans and the Guatemalans and the Salvadorans. I would label that a pitfall that generalizes too glibly about social groups as if they all were homogeneous.

This is the 10th in a series of AdAgeStat Q&As with researchers who have extensively studied pieces of the demographic puzzle. Earlier we spoke to Edward Glaeser about The Triumph of the City, Carol Foley about drivers of human behavior, Dante Chinni about the role of geography in segmentation, Joel Kotkin about suburbs and immigration, Richard Florida about cities, Paco Underhill about women, Rose Cameron about men, Tammy Erickson about Generation X, and behavioral economist Dan Ariely about how to use everyone's irrationality to your advantage.

Follow @AdAgeStat on twitter for constant updates.

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