Why The Census Bureau Is Turning To Children To Reach Asian Immigrants

The U.S. Census Bureau made commercials around Los Angeles in a limited number of Asian languages, including Korean. (Screenshot from video courtesy Census Bureau)

In the last week, the United States Census Bureau has rolled out six ads in different Asian languages with pretty much the same storyline: cute little girl tells her dad all she knows about the census.

The ads' backdrops vary — a Chinese bakery, a Korean grocery, a Filipino family's home office — but in each one the daughter sweetly nudges dad into filling out census forms.

"We definitely wanted to hone in on that family connection and filial piety," said Tim Wang, whose agency TDW+Co made the ads in and around Los Angeles.

The Census Bureau says that language barriers make Asian immigrants some of the hardest people to count, and it's spending millions more on culturally-relevant advertising to reach them than it did 10 years ago.

Still, community advocates in Los Angeles, home to some of the world's largest Asian diasporas, worry that large swaths of people could be missed in a national headcount that decides political representation and how government resources are distributed.

One concern: Census officials have dropped eight of 14 languages spoken by Asians that it used for advertising in its 2010 campaign, including those for Cambodians, Thai, Pakistanis and Laotians.

"(Asians') numbers might increase, but we're not going to know because they're not responding," said An Le of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, who is coordinating census outreach to Asian Californians with other non-profit groups.

A Census Bureau official cited cost as the reason it cut back on the number of languages the bureau is using in TV, radio and digital ads.

But program manager Kendall Johnson said the Census Bureau values reaching people in their native languages and has more than doubled the number of outreach workers it's hired in 2020 to 1,500-plus, many of them bilingual. More than 100 languages are spoken among these "partnership specialists," who go to community events and exhibit at conferences, Johnson said.

Johnson added that the Census Bureau sees community-based groups as important partners and has placed all of its English language materials online for them to translate should they want.

"We're just one of many voices out there," Johnson said. "We may have the largest campaign. But that doesn't mean there aren't other campaigns out there."

In one of the new ads, a Japanese father listens to his daughter's lesson about the 2020 census. (Screenshot from video courtesy Census Bureau)

Le said that Asian American organizations in California and beyond have indeed been busy compiling translated resources in as many languages as possible.

Still, Le fears that many Asians with limited English will fall through the cracks — and not just because the public awareness campaign is in fewer languages.

The Census Bureau is making a push for respondents to fill out the questionnaire online which Le said will be a problem for Asian immigrants who lack internet literacy or access.

Those who can navigate the web will be able to answer questions in a limited number of Asian languages: Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Korean and Vietnamese.

Paper forms which will only be offered in English and Spanish.

In another new Census Bureau ad, a little girl tells her dad to fill out his census forms in Mandarin. (Screenshot from video courtesy Census Bureau)

The language barriers posed by the census is just one of the challenges of getting Asian immigrants counted. The White House also had planned to ask 2020 Census respondents whether they were U.S. citizens until the Supreme Court blocked the question.

"We were just terrified that the citizenship question was going to be on, right?" Le said. "There were like many fights that we were trying to be prepared for."

Asians are the fastest growing racial demographic in the country, but the Census Bureau is still devoting roughly the same proportion of its budget to that audience: 9% or $20.4 million.

But Johnson predicted the bureau's media campaign to do better than in 2010, in large part due to increased use of digital ads on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

"The ability to much more precisely target the media is what is allowing us to get the most bang for our buck," Johnson said.

The Vietnamese version of the census ad was filmed in Little Saigon. (Screenshot from video courtesy Census Bureau)

The Census Bureau projects that its media outreach will reach 99% of the 18-plus population of all races and ethnicities.

TDW+Co principal Wang saw from focus groups and survey findings that reaching Asians in particular would be challenging.

"Asian American audiences had the lowest level of familiarity on what the census is, and why it's important," Wang said.

That's why, Wang said, the messaging they developed is "very educational, motivational, and very uplifting in tone and nature."

TDW+Co will keep introducing ads through June, including those that remind people to respond to the census, and also to "humanize" the census takers who may come knocking on their doors if they don't, Wang said.