Census to Advertise in Super Bowl: Your Tax Dollars at Work

Why the govt. will spend $340M to convince you to respond to the 2010 Census.

December 13, 2009, 12:39 PM

Feb. 4, 2010 — -- How does the U.S. Census Bureau convince Americans to respond to their decennial surveys? Try tens of millions of dollars in paid advertising, including an ad in this Sunday's Super Bowl.

The bureau first turned to advertising for the 2000 Census. Ten years before, their response rate had been only 65 percent and the projection was: Do nothing and the response in 2000 might drop to about 60 percent. So they spent $106.4 million and achieved a response rate of 64 percent.

This year, spending on advertising and marketing for the 2010 Census will total $340 million, which, in addition to paid advertising, will include public relations, Web site development and a road tour.

Ethnic groups will see some of the heaviest marketing from the Census Bureau because of concerns that the 2000 Census undercounted minorities and low-income Americans, which would have prevented federal funding from reaching these communities.

Of the projected media spend more than $82 million will be spent to reach ethnic consumers. That includes $24.5 million against the African American market, $28 million in Spanish language advertising, $18 million in Asian languages and another $12 million to reach other multicultural audiences from American Indians to Arabic speakers. There will be advertisements in local ethnic media in 28 languages.

Besides federal funding, Census results can have electoral implications as well. One of the most important things the Census is used for is to determine legislative districts. If the concentration of the population has changed significantly or shifted geographically, legislative districts could be redrawn radically changing the number of Democrats or Republicans elected to office.

Despite the push to bolster response rates through advertising, critics still have specific qualms about the 2010 Census.

Many Hispanics worry the Census will be somehow used to identify those who are in the country illegally. Even if that's not what the Census is used for, some argue, it is highly unlikely that the information won't find its way into future debates.

Black newspaper publishers believe they are being overlooked and after running census ads as Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in the past, now they argue, only a paltry percentage of the ethnic media spend is being directed towards their papers. The National Newspaper Publishers Association (representing Black newspaper publishers) has held press conferences demanding that the U.S. Census Bureau allocate more funding to their newspapers.

Census Won't Ask About Same-Sex Marriage, Civil Unions

The 2010 Census will not tackle LGBT issues. It will ask no questions about same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships, but for the first time will not alter responses to the question of relationship to head of household, which will give census takers a look at gays in partner relationships. LGBT critics say that not asking for accurate information keeps them from getting better political representation and federal funding.

In spite of all that is at stake with the 2010 Census -- more than $300 billion in spending each year from roads to education and healthcare—up to 20 percent of people are undecided about participating in this year's census. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of the respondents were either sure they would not participate or undecided as to whether they would participate. Add to this statistic the fact that Hispanic and younger Americans, approximately a third of each group said they had not even heard of the census.

This Sunday when up to100 million Americans are perched on their couches, favorite beverages in hand (for those of you have been faithful readers you know that means diet root beer for me) many will be as focused on the TV commercials as the big game. Among the advertisers, shelling out $2.5 million of your hard-earned tax dollars will be the U.S. Census.

The Census Bureau argues that if it is not successful getting people to mail in surveys, it will need to go door-to-door which is much more expensive. Whether the final response is as high as it was in 2000 or better, the data collected and the methods used will surely be debated for some time.

The work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York advertising agency that develops consumer-centric advertising campaigns. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.

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