I was on the bus the other day, on my way into downtown San Francisco, and two young white guys were talking next to me. As they spoke, they used more than a few Spanish words -- though highly Anglicized -- in their casual conversation. It surprised me a little, only because their use of language didn't conform to what I assumed I would hear from them.
When I told a friend of mine who teaches Spanish at a private high school here, he said the use of Spanglish is now fairly mainstream and is the result of both the "Dora effect" -- that is, the impact of "Dora the Explorer" on a generation of kids who grew up with her -- and the fact that there are now so many Latino and mixed-race kids in California.
When U.S.-born white kids more commonly uses "dude, no problemo" when they means "hey, thanks, man" (in the language of my generation) or "agua" for "water," it's time for marketers to pay attention. But if my casual observations aren't enough, consider the latest U.S. Census data being released.
Data from the 2010 survey shows huge spikes in people identifying as mixed race, particularly in places like the Deep South, where one might not expect to find such trends. In Mississippi, which didn't allow mixed-race marriages until 1967, the growth of interracial couples led the nation over the last 10 years. These couples are predominantly black-white.
In the West, white and Latino folks are marrying most often, especially in states where fights over Latino immigration are most fierce. In other states, it's white and Asian people who are shacking-up together. But the trend is clear all over the nation: mixed race coupling is on the rise, which means mixed race children are, too. A demographer at the Brookings Institution, William H. Frey, told the New York Times: "The fact that even states like Mississippi were able to see a large explosion of residents identifying as both black and white tells us something that people would not have predicted 10 or 20 years ago."
Often, the kids from these marriages are raised with two languages: very often Spanish and English, but also English and Chinese or other Asian languages. School districts in the San Francisco Bay Area celebrate Bollywood alongside the stuff coming out of Hollywood as a response to demographic shifts. Tortillas are as common in pantries as bread in the West, but now, increasingly, in the South, too. And, most notably, we have a mixed-race President, who self-identifies as black while his sister, who has a different father, self-identifies as Asian.
Last year's census numbers say what we can see if only we open our eyes to it: as a nation, we're changing more quickly than perhaps most people realized.
All of which means it's more important than ever to think expansively when planning a search or any other marketing campaign. Demographic categories just aren't so neat and tidy any more (if they ever were!) and are becoming more nuanced by the year. Understanding how young people of mixed race use language should be part of any research on a demographic. Moreover, if mixed-race couples and their children are influencing changes in "mainstream" American culture, it's important to understand that, too. And if there is a "Dora effect," then we should probably be paying attention to it.
If you're planning a campaign from San Francisco or New York for Oklahoma or Idaho or Mississippi, you can't make assumptions about what's going on in those "fly-over" geographies any more.
In fact, whatever your assumptions may be, it's probably best to throw them out.