To enhance their marketing prospects, a group of pet-food manufacturers not long ago lobbied the Census Bureau to ask every American whether they owned a dog, a cat or a goldfish.
Compact-disc manufacturers want to know about your music-listening habits and pool-makers about whether you swim in your backyard.Psychiatrists proposed these two queries for the government's 1990 Census: Do you dream; and if so, do you dream in color?
All of these questions were deemed too trivial for the census's larger mission of quantifying the age, sex, race and other vital statistics of the nation's 250 million citizens.
But the scramble for inclusion by businesses and professional groups illustrates how the census has gone from a survey aimed at determining political representation to the private sector's most comprehensive planning and marketing tool.
Thousands of other consumer databases are available to businesses, but none can touch the breadth and depth of the census as a roadmap to who and where consumers are.
Retailers such as K mart use the census to fine-tune neighborhood promotions; Safeway uses it to study potential sites for new stores. Procter & Gamble makes guesses about how many Pampers it will sell a decade out. A cemetery owner recently asked the Census Bureau to help him determine the number of people of Italian ancestry living near him in order to anticipate the demand for crypts.
"If you think of (all market research) as a plant, the information in the census would be the roots," said Tim Evans, director of marketing services at Perpetual Savings Bank here. "You've got to grow some other stuff on top of it to get to the fruits, but you can't do anything without the roots."
Evans's company uses census information to provide a basic demographic sketch of the neighborhoods around each of its bank branches. It then singles out the neighborhoods whose income characteristics most closely match those of typical buyers of certificates of deposit, mutual funds and other banking products. By zeroing in on customers this way and eliminating unlikely prospects, companies like Perpetual are able to concentrate their advertising in a more cost-effective way.
Market researchers, who follow the demography of American society like baseball fans watching a pennant race, already know many of the broad patterns the 1990 census will reveal, and as such aren't likely to be surprised when the data come rolling out a year from now. But changes on the questionnaire from the most recent census in 1980 are likely to uncover new details about consumer markets. The 1990 "long" questionnaire, which is sent to one in six households, will, for example, provide a clearer picture of the financial well-being of the elderly because it asks about pension income.
Other new questions deal with how long it takes people to get to work and when they leave - a valuable insight for auto and oil companies as well transportation planners.
Numbers paint a picture
- It cost $44,000 to take the first U.S. census in 1790. Today it will cost $2.6 billion.
- The first census was completed by 16 U.S. marshals. This year, 560,000 temporary workers will be hired.
- More than 30,000 workers were hired just to compile the census address list of 106 million U.S. households.
- Ninety percent of the census-takers are women.
- Refusal to fill out a census form is punishable by a $100 fine, but no one has ever been prosecuted.
- The Census Bureau counts hotels, dentist offices, car repair shops and most types of businesses, in addition to people.
- The Census Bureau tracks the types and uses of the nation's 34 million private and commercial trucks.
- The Census Bureau keeps track of the fertility rates of nearly 200 other countries.