Census Citizenship Question: Bad For Marketing Research?

Filed Under: Market Research


Jorge Martínez-Bonilla

Senior Vice President, CultureBeat

“You can lose all your points for any one of three things. One: If you cry. Two: If you ask to see your mother. Three: If you’re hungry and ask for a snack!” These are the warning words Guido (pretending to translate for a German officer) tells his little son, Giosuè, in a masterfully played scene in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1998). This movie has the power to simultaneously make one cheer for the hope of a better world and shed a tear of intense sadness for how uncompassionate humanity became at its lowest point in history. The movie follows the story of an Italian Jewish man, Guido, who is sent to a concentration camp where he concocts an imaginary game to shield his son from the horrific realities of the Holocaust. In other words, he does everything in his power to protect his son…by lying. If you were in Guido’s shoes, it would be reasonable to expect you would do the same: you would do everything in your power to protect your loved one. That is what we do as humans; we love, and we belong; and, by loving and belonging, we become protectors and protégés of those we love and belong to, including our nation and society.

The current administration, through the commerce secretary, the overseer of the Census Bureau, has proposed the inclusion of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. The question would directly ask the U.S. citizenship status of everyone living in the nation (to be precise, it would ask, “is this person a citizen of the United States?”). The proposition has been challenged in court, and a definitive ruling on the issue has not been made; however, from a business perspective, there are advantages to avoiding asking a citizenship question. 


Commerce Secretary Ross and the administration’s argument for backing the inclusion of the citizenship question pivots on enforcing the Voting Rights Act, intended to protect individuals from language and racial discrimination.

Opponents of the citizenship question fear an inaccurate counting. And that is a pretty big deal.

On a political level, the counts from the census ultimately help determine the number of seats in the House of Representatives, and it also helps to determine how federal funds are allocated for each state. And, by funds, we mean billions of dollars.

From a business and marketing perspective, the census information is used by just about every corporation to make critical business decisions and projections that impact the survival of entire industries. For example:

  • A food and beverage company might check census data prior to launching its latest multi-million-dollar advertising campaign.
  • A company developing a new skincare product designed with a specific population in mind will check which markets offer the most promising prospects.
  • A financial and banking enterprise that develops solutions for low- and middle-income consumers might check the census to estimate their market potential, etc.


The census has long been considered an impartial source of vital demographic, social, and economic information. Billions of dollars move every day as a result of decisions made based on the information provided by the census—where to move corporate headquarters, how many Walmart stores are opened in a given market, how many dollars are invested in an ad campaign in one state versus another, etc.

If you watch TV, you have probably seen AT&T’s “Just OK” campaign. In one of the ads, a patient awaiting surgery asks a nurse what she thinks about his surgeon, only to get a disparaging, “he’s OK” response. Who wants a “just OK” physician? Similarly, who wants “just OK” census data? Nobody. Inherently, a citizenship question risks these results.

Accuracy is at risk with a citizenship question because millions of people would arguably be compelled to ignore the census questionnaire or fill it out incorrectly, leading to the all-too-undesirable outcome of a miscount—the opposite of what the census is supposed to do.


Here’s where the image of Guido’s ordeal comes into play. We are living in times of incredible social and political divide, intolerance, and distrust. Minorities are on the receiving end of social bullying; there are countless stories of people being harassed for speaking in a different language or for looking and dressing differently; and political and social discourse often only feeds the tension. If you are on the receiving end of this hostility, you might feel compelled to hesitate to answer the citizenship question. Like Guido, you would do everything in your power to protect your anonymity (thus, saving yourself and your family from potential targeting).

These concerns aren’t unfounded or irrational.  On the contrary, they are very real and can be paralyzing to Americans. As NPR has reported, Census Bureau officials have recommended against including a citizenship question to ask all households about their status, “for fear that it would harm the accuracy of information collected for the headcount.”

Finally, undocumented and illegal immigrants would have good reason to not answer the census question, or they could answer it incorrectly, at the expense of facing legal and financial consequences. However, there are other individuals who might be inclined to do the same—or, at the very least, would feel conflicted about the issue:

  • Undocumented parents of U.S.-born children
  • Those who have a resident or refugee status, but are not citizens
  • Those in the process of obtaining legal residency or citizenship
  • Recent citizenship recipients who fear having the privilege rescinded
  • Those who would use the census as a vehicle to protest the current administration’s handling of immigration and social welfare

Experts and opponents of the question have argued that there are better and more accurate methods to count citizens for political purposes—namely, the Bureau’s American Community Survey, which is longer and sent regularly to a smaller number of homes. So, why risk the accuracy of the census?


As explained in a Forbes column by Isaac Mizrahi, a well-respected advertising professional and thought leader in the multicultural marketing community, there is simply too much at risk. If the question ends up making its way onto the census, it would complicate the work of marketers across national, if not global, industries. As market researchers, we see these issues constantly, especially working with multicultural audiences—and not just Hispanics.  Collecting samples with Spanish-speaking and unacculturated Hispanics has become challenging over the last several years, as participants have become elusive and reticent to share basic personal and household information. During a recent project for a non-profit organization (a globally renowned museum and educational institution) we heard stories of would-be program beneficiaries who declined sharing basic family information because they worry about being targeted for ill-intended purposes. On another project for a food and beverage industry leader, a teenage participant eagerly spoke about his participation in immigration reform advocacy, but abruptly shut down when asked about family traditions, as he became emotionally overwhelmed by the prospect of discussing his parents’ immigration status.

Census figures are used in the marketing community and business world at large every day to make critical decisions on:

  • How much to invest in an ad campaign
  • What DMAs to target
  • Where the next store will be opened
  • How many branch offices are needed to service consumers
  • How much to invest in the next fiber-optic network
  • What areas to target with 5G connectivity

All of these business endeavors would be at risk with inaccurate census counting. With marketing being as complex as it already is, it does not make business sense to risk census accuracy.


We believe the nation, its business community, and the whole economy are better served by an accurate counting of the U.S. population—all of it—no matter what skin color, what country a person hails from, what language they prefer to speak, whether they fell in love with someone who is not a citizen, or if they were born to parents with an irregular immigration status!

We believe a nation that embraces our differences and strengthens its social fabric through valuing differences—rather than weakening them through hatred and intolerance—is a nation that moves forward, a nation that progresses towards a better and brighter future. It is a future where immigrants fuel creativity and progress, and where businesses flourish as part of a vibrant economy—our marketing industry included. 

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