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The US Census is Under Pressure

Will a strategy based on a Moral Foundation be enough?

For those of you who haven’t been following the news on the US Census, it is in difficult situation as it prepares to conduct their decennial census this year.  The Trump administration created part of that pressure in their attempt to add a question about citizenship to the shorter questionnaire.  This created a storm of protest from those who claimed that adding that question would depress response rates, especially among marginalized communities. While the Supreme Court eventually decided to not allow the addition of the question, the publicity about it stoked fears of how the data would be used, and itself may have depressed response rates.

And, unlike the research that we in marketing do, which has response rates that have declined into the single digits, the census is mandated to achieve 100%! A formidable task, especially because of the fear created by the xenophobia associated with the Trump administration.  Especially wary are those US residents who are not in the country legally, and even those families and households who have mixed immigration status, all of which the Census needs to count.  The implications of how successful they are in achieving this are huge, not just in politics (where it determines the number of Congressional Districts and Electoral College representation and funding for programs) but also in our field, marketing.  The census data is a major underpinning for many marketing decisions.

I’ve been following this closely because, as a former market researcher, I have learned that anytime you add a question, especially about a sensitive topic, you need to be careful, because you can change your results. Also, I am also in awe of achieving a 100% response rate given the plummeting response rate to surveys.

The Census doesn’t just have the burden of achieving its mandated goal of a 100% response rate, it faces another challenge in this tight labor economy, hiring.  Ten years ago, they employed 635,000 people.  They may not need quite as many now, because they are using technology that they didn’t have back then; online questionnaires and technology to map the geography that used to be mapped by employees on foot may reduce their hiring needs.

I’m not sure what their employment goal is for 2020.  But they face a much more difficult market to recruit the temporary help they need than in 2010.  Ten years ago, the employment market was weak, with unemployment just under 10%.  In contrast, in December 2019, unemployment was about 3.5%.    

In this difficult environment, VMLY&R created a census employment recruiting campaign with the tag line:

Assist with the 2020 Census count and support your community.  

I think this is inspired on a number of levels. First, it uses one of Haidt’s Moral Foundations, which are powerful motivators. Moral Foundations are so important to people that they are willing to go to war.  Use of the Moral Foundation elevates the census from a routine temporary job that comes and goes to a way to help your community. Second, because that particular Moral Foundation is stronger among the immigrant communities that are being threatened by the xenophobic atmosphere, it should attract job candidates from those same communities (who also have higher unemployment rates).  Third, if they are successful in attracting temporary employees from those communities, that should help them increase their completion rates among those threatened communities.

Good job, VMLY&R!  I’ll be watching to see how it does. 

If you want to learn how your brand can use a Moral Foundation to accelerate your results, you have several options.  One is to buy my book Marketing Landmines, available on Amazon.  Another is to have me come in and present a lunch and learn.  Or you can hire me as a consultant to audit your brands to determine which ones have the greatest

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Karen Tibbals @KarenTibbals

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