The 2001 Census: Cold facts mask real lives

The 2001 Census is a cold, heartless compendium of data embellished with bureaucratic terms such as 'step-families' 'occupied private dwellings' and 'centenarians.' The act of reading the results of a census is made doubly difficult because there are too many numbers to digest.

The 2001 Census is a cold, heartless compendium of data embellished with bureaucratic terms such as ‘step-families’ ‘occupied private dwellings’ and ‘centenarians.’ The act of reading the results of a census is made doubly difficult because there are too many numbers to digest.

Undoubtedly the numerical picture we receive every five years from the wonderful folks at Stats Canada is crucial. Our country needs to plan and project. Policy decision-making engines run on data fuel. All of our syndicated media measurement studies must be weighted to our population’s numerical reality.

On the other hand, the waves of data in a census report numb the sensitivities because we allow facts and figures to stand in the place of real lives. An older parent who lost her spouse and just moved in with you, is represented as a ‘senior women co-residing with adult child’ number, rounded to the nearest hundred. A young child being raised by an unmarried couple that is about to split up is part of those ‘born into common-law unions,’ expressed as a percentage to the nearest tenth. In other words, census data can be debilitating because the simple fact that 30% of all couples in Quebec were living common-law in 2001 minimizes the magnitude of the reality by hiding true life stories and emotional complexity. The existence of one simple number allows us to avoid thinking about what’s really going on inside any particular slice of society.

Let me focus on three really important statistics from this most recent census (which is all I can possibly retain at the best of times) namely 34,200, 15.7% and 64%. You and I both have friends and family who reside within these numbers so let’s think about these people as we examine the stats. This exercise will help us better appreciate what’s happening in our society and help us understand the media and marketing implications that spring from these records of change in Canada.

Here’s the first of those three 2001 Census numbers… 34,200.

For the first time, the census measured the number of same-sex couples in Canada. Fred and Stewart, friends of ours who live on Avenue Road here in Toronto, are two of Canada’s 34,200 gay and lesbian couples who decided to come out via the census form. Our friends have a modest, fashionable and social life. They’re smart, funny but lonely. Stewart has spent the last two years working at a Caribbean resort. Fred is based in Toronto but has a migratory career in the theatre biz. They’re often apart. Their loneliness is caused by their respective love for their individual careers.

Can it be that same sex couples account for only one half of one percent of all couples in Canada? At that rate there are only 120,000 gays and lesbians in Canada’s adult population. Can it be that so few Canadians carry such huge political weight? The numbers could be underestimated by the census certainly, but still, the public persona must be at least 10 times actual numbers. Vodka and beer brands will never get a return on their marketing investments from 120,000 consumers, or more specifically, from Toronto’s 50,000 same-sex population. Perhaps this is why the same-sex lifestyle arouses such high levels of interest within the marketing community. Same-sex imagery is larger than life and isn’t that what advertising’s all about?

The implication… find a number in the census that’s a lot smaller than you thought possible and you’ll find a creative target opportunity.

Here’s the second number… 15.7%.

This is the lone-parent proportion of all families in the country. My sister-in-law just joined the other 1.3-million lone-parents out there. She recently separated from her husband of 18 years. She’s in her mid-40s. She’s got two kids. She’s just purchased her own home. She’s working around the clock to put food on the table, make the mortgage payments, make sure the homework gets done all the while keeping the furnace working. But there is a heroic side to this story because my sister-in-law is strong, determined and I have no doubt she will make a better life for herself and her ‘lone-parent’ family.

This 15.7% is a big number, rapidly getting bigger, and yet it is a number ignored by our marketing industry. How many creative messages feature a single mom? What we have here is the reverse of the ‘same-sex’ phenomenon. The single mom or dad is smaller than life and for that reason lone-parents generate little or no interest from the ad community.

Perhaps we’ll see a TV commercial or two featuring the lone-parent when their proportion breaks through the 50% barrier?

Don’t count on it. This third number from the census is proof of that… 64%.

This is the proportion of 20- to 24-year-old males who still live at home or who have moved back home. You probably have friends or family members like my nephew, Eric, who is 20 years old, has completed high school but doesn’t have the marks or the money to get into university. He’s taking some courses at college in an attempt to raise his average but that’s not going well. He is one unhappy guy. The proportion of young women staying in the parental home is only slightly lower… 52%. The proportions decline, amongst the older 25- to 29-year-old group… 29% for men and 19% for women.

Obviously not all of these young people are aimless. Many stay at home while attending university or college. There may be others who are happy, motivated and are simply trying to get on their feet, happy to spend some extra time with good old Mom and Dad. But we also know there are unhappy reasons behind the epidemic growth in this phenomenon. Many return home following a failed common-law relationship or broken marriage. Some are having problems finding employment because they are inappropriately trained and educated. And some stay home for the worst of all possible reasons… it’s the easiest thing to do.

How many TV commercials have you seen that feature young actors portraying groovy ‘stay-at-home’ guys and gals? That’s not cool. Welcome to another smaller than life segment of our society – in this case, a segment representing a significant majority of today’s youth.

How will our media and marketing industry react to this newest snapshot of Canadian society? The attractive, traditional, wealthy, fashionable, exotic shrinking minority will be predominantly featured in our mass media targeting and messaging. The large, growing, non-traditional, unhappy, struggling majority will remain invisible, ignored, and smaller than life.

I guess the TV screen was never meant to be a mirror.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at