Policy-ish

Conceptual Census Super Bowl Ad: Bargain Or Boondoggle?

New Orleans Saints' quarterback Drew Brees may have taken the spotlight during last night's big game, but a government-sponsored advertisement offered viewers a chance to star in a major 2010 production, too: The U.S. Census.

The $2.5 million ad, directed by mockumentary pioneer Christopher Guest, who also worked on This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, beseeched spectators to pose for a "snap shot of America."

The Constitution requires the national head count every 10 years, and the government uses the findings to allocate around $400 billion a year, according to Census documents. A lot of that money goes to health programs, such as state-run Medicaid plans for the poor, and grants for social service programs, substance abuse clinics and hospital construction.

Undercounting has cost states millions of dollars in the past, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report. Take Georgia, for instance, where miscounts in 2000—the last year a census was conducted — cost the state $478 million, the report says.

So, Census officials argue, participating in the survey means more money for hospitals and social services in your community, all for just filling out a ten-question packet.

But, this year, an eclectic opposition has appeared urging citizens to approach the census with skepticism, and in some cases, downright boycott it. The unlikely spectrum of Census opponents ranges from Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., an outspoken conservative who opposed the advocacy group ACORN's now-severed ties with the Census Bureau, to Hispanic-American leaders, and also includes Tea Party activists. Early last year, Republican leaders were concerned that the White House sought to impose more political control over the Census Bureau. (Administration officials refuted that allegation).

The Pew Research Center noted last month, "there are partisan differences in opinions about the values of the census, and in personal willingness to participate." The young, Hispanics, and less educated people are among those voicing skepticism, they said. Their January poll, conducted days before the Census officially began, found that 16 percent of the population may not participate. Participation is required by law, and those who refuse face an up-to-$5,000 penalty, but the fine is rarely enforced.

Enter the Super Bowl Census ad, part of a campaign that began in January. The ad — like others in the series, which includes Web-only videos—features an eccentric fictional film director named Payton Schlewitt who seeks to capture all Americans in a single shot. Then, a member of his production team intones, "Isn't that kinda what the Census is doing?" Some industry observers say the subtle director Guest's dry style, which in this case oddly weds absurdism and civic duty, may appeal mainly to upper-middle class people already likely to participate.

The Super Bowl spot cost $2.5 million, an expense some have lambasted as an affront to taxpayers. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tweeted, "While the census is very important to AZ, we shouldn't be wasting $2.5 million taxpayer dollars to compete with ads for Doritos!" To make matters more contentious, the Census received funding to up its out-reach efforts and media buys through the politically charged economic stimulus package last February.

In a rebuttal yesterday, the Census Bureau argues its investments in ads pay off: In addition to ensuring that states such as Georgia get their fair share for health care, social service and employment projects, each 1 percent increase in participation by mail-in surveys save taxpayers $85 million, because higher response rates mean the bureau must field fewer workers to go door-to-door collecting information. In 2000, the first year the bureau used ad campaigns to increase participation, they spent $100 million, but their efforts led to $305 million in savings, according to their defense, posted on the 2010 Census Web site.

This year, the bureau will spend $340 million in all, and in addition to the Super Bowl, the campaign will also target Mardi Gras, the Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco, and the Daytona 500.

Weaver is a reporter for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.

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