Supreme Court

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today (April 23) over whether a question about citizenship should be added to the 2020 census, they’ll also have in their hands a brief filed by Nielsen. It details to the nine justices just how critical census data is to the research giant and its media and consumer goods customers. That’s because much of what Nielsen does has its genesis in the government’s findings.

“The foundation upon which Nielsen’s projections are based is the decennial census and annual updates keyed off the decennial census,” the company said in the amicus brief. “The integrity of Nielsen’s projection process—and thus the integrity of the data relied upon by Nielsen’s myriad clients—depend on a baseline assumption that census data is accurate and reliable,” it added.

In what’s likely the highest-profile case of the Supreme Court’s term, the justices will hear arguments about whether a citizenship question on the 2020 census is an attempt to deliberately undercount immigrants who may be frightened off by questionnaires. The Trump administration has proposed adding the question, saying it was needed to enforce civil rights laws. But a coalition of 18 states and several immigrant rights groups has sued to block it from being added. They say it would reduce response rates among immigrant households. Lower courts have so far sided with opponents, but the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

Ratings Built Block By Block

In a 35-page court filing, Nielsen tells the justices how census data ripples through the media ecosystem. For ratings, Nielsen uses the most granular information known as “census block” level data to compile population and demographic information for local markets. “Once Nielsen knows who lives within each DMA, it then—again at the block level—randomly selects households to approach for participation within the sample,” Nielsen explains. It is how, the company says, it is able to collect data from about 850 households in the Washington, DC area and extrapolate what a metro area is listening to or watching. Census data is also how Nielsen knows that 11% of the households in this market are Hispanic.

Nielsen agrees that a citizenship question would “likely” result in an “undercount” of noncitizens and minority populations. “Leaving aside the social and political consequences of that undercount, this is untenable from a business perspective,” it says. Nielsen points out that a Census Bureau projection released in 2013 that the U.S. would become a majority non-white nation in 2044 has already led to American corporations becoming increasingly focused on ensuring they are serving a broader spectrum of population. “Those efforts will be substantially hampered by a modification in the census that will almost inevitably result in an underestimation of minority populations throughout the country,” the company says, explaining that’s certain to include programming decisions by media companies.

“In short, minority communities will be underserved and gravely harmed if their prominence in the country is not accurately registered by the census. But so too would an inaccurate count of minority communities harm American businesses who will miss out on the opportunity to sell products and content to an ever increasing portion of the U.S. population,” Nielsen says. “This mismatch between a community that wants to be served and corporations that want to serve it will cost American businesses billions of dollars in lost revenues. And as the prevalence of minority households grows, the harms from the undercount of minority households in the census will only increase.”

‘Enormous’ Economic Impact

The reliability of a massive data set that Nielsen accesses, largely at the government’s expense, may seem self-serving. But in an op-ed in the New York Times, Nielsen CEO David Kenny says Census Bureau numbers are behind many of the decisions that the advertising industry and other business sectors make each day as they decide what to make, who to make it for, where to market it, where to sell it, and how to adapt to the nation’s changing demographics.

“The economic impact of these decisions is enormous,” Kenny writes. “Millions, and sometimes billions, of dollars — not to mention thousands of jobs — are at stake, so it is crucial that they be based on the highest quality data.” He says in an era of big data, it’s more important than ever to have accurate census information since in most cases it’s used as a benchmark. “Even a small error in the census can be amplified over and over again as the data is used in new and ever evolving ways,” Kenny says, adding, “The last thing that business needs is for the next 10 years of data to be built on a faulty foundation.”

Univision Opposes Changes Too

Nielsen’s Supreme Court pleadings may be a rare move for the research company, but it’s not standing alone. The Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Advertising Research Foundation and Interactive Advertising Bureau have also come out in favor of leaving a citizenship question off the 2020 census.

Hispanic broadcaster Univision Communications has joined a coalition of 21 corporations that are also critical of the proposed change. “Inaccurate Census data would weaken the ability of businesses to adapt their marketing and outreach strategies to a changing population, resulting in wasted dollars for businesses and unwanted advertising for customers,” their amicus brief tells the justices.

No media company has come out in favor of adding the citizenship question.

The Supreme Court is expected to release its decision by late-June when its current term ends. – Frank Saxe