Super Bowl spot kicks off debate over spending on 2010 Census ad campaign

Republicans are hammering away at the Census Bureau's $340 million ad campaign, calling the 30-second $2.5 million Super Bowl Sunday commercial spot "wasted money."

But congressional Democrats and U.S. Census Bureau officials defended the ad campaign as necessary for outreach and saving money in the end, with some saying that even more money may be needed.

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If one percent of the more than 100 million people expected to watch this year’s Super Bowl football game opt to mail back their Census forms, it will save taxpayers up to $30 million that would otherwise be spent on sending workers door-to-door, said U.S. Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner.

“It takes just 10 minutes to complete and by doing so it saves money,” said Buckner of the 10-question Census form. “If everybody mailed back their forms we wouldn’t have to do any of this advertising.”

Since 1970 the percentage of Americans who mail back the U.S. Census form has continuously declined, but in 2000 President Bill Clinton supported a $167 million advertising campaign that increased responses by 6 percent.

Several Republicans have voiced their criticism of this year’s ad budget, which is expected to fund advertisements during the Daytona 500, Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl and several other events.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) sent a letter Thursday to the secretary of the Department of Commerce and the director of the Census Bureau asking for a strict accounting of the ad funds. "I am very concerned with the amount of money spent by the Census Bureau for the production and airing of these commercials," Isakson wrote.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who was a Census taker in 1970, said in an interview with The Hill that while he considers the decennial Census a “worthy” task, the 30-second Super Bowl advertisement is “not necessary.”

Wilson’s Republican colleague, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), said in an interview that the Super Bowl ad was “wasted money" and that the overall budget of $340 million was excessive.

“It’s too much and I wouldn’t vote for the money,” Paul said.

Of this year’s $340 million commercial campaign, $130 million is designated for ads in 28 languages to try to reach the increasingly broad demographics in the United States.

Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) said that even more money may be needed for the Census ad budget in order to make sure that all of America’s communities are reached, though he added that a watchful eye should be cast on how that money is spent.

“We might have to spend more,” said Burris in an interview. “We have to make sure that we get to the underserved communities so that those dollars will legitimately come in those communities and they’ll stop being underserved. Whatever we’re spending we have to spend it wisely.”

The Census' questionnaire results are used in part to designate more than $400 billion a year in federal money to cities and states.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in an interview that the Census’ advertising budget is necessary to familiarize the public with the questionnaire.

“I think their advertising expenditures are worth it because people need to be reminded of what the Census is all about, and it’s helping the community in which they live for the Census to have information about the people who are living in different areas of the country,” Waxman said, adding that “people forget from decade to decade what the Census is all about."

Waxman said the Super Bowl commercial in particular was a good move because it will reach a different audience than ads placed within political network news programs.

“I think they will reach a large audience and I think it will be a different audience that they reach than if they advertise in commercials in [NBC’s] 'Meet The Press,'” Waxman said.


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) launched GOP criticism of the Census ad campaign toward the end of last week via Twitter: "While the census is very important to AZ, we shouldn’t be wasting $2.5 million taxpayer dollars to compete with ads for Doritos!"

In an interview with The Hill, fellow former presidential candidate Paul also critiqued the nature of the 10-question Census form.

The 2010 Census asks Americans to submit their race, phone number, date of birth, and sex -- among several other related questions.

Instead of gathering personal information, Paul said, the Census form should focus solely on counting the number of people in each community.

“I wouldn’t promote a Census where they do more than count people so I hope it fails,” Paul said. “They’re not supposed to ask all of these questions.”

A Census is required at least once every 10 years by the Constitution. The number of House lawmakers from each state and the political districts of each state are apportioned based on the Census data. The White House is expecting to receive the information by the end of the year.

A U.S. Census Bureau spokesman said that the advertising budget was a time-proven method to reducing costs to the taxpayer.

Using public service announcements (PSAs) as its main advertising component, the census of 1990 received 65 percent of the forms that it requested from Americans. In 2000, a multimillion dollar ad budget was designated and brought about an increase in respondents, according to the Census Bureau spokesman.

“Up until [2000] it was PSAs airing at 2 o’clock and three in the morning,” Buckner said.

“So in 2000 we were facing a three-decade decline in mail-back response rates from the American public and what that translates into is increased costs because for every one percentage point that the mail-back response rate increases we actually saved about $85 million not having to send somebody door-to-door to get those responses.”

Buckner remained confident that though the Census Bureau is expecting a 72 percent mail-in response rate this year, there will be lessons learned for the 2020 Census.

“Each time we get a little bit better based on what we learned from the previous Census,” he said.