Census looks like a bust

You have doubtless seen the ads. Ed Begley is cast as Payton Schlewitt, the director of “Snapshot of America.” They spent 2.5 million tax dollars to run this “mockumentary” once in the Super Bowl and a lot more since. 

Do you realize what this ad campaign is all about? It’s trying to encourage you to participate in the census.

I clarify its purpose because I am certain that some denser viewers didn’t “get it,” just as many viewers didn’t get the movie “Best in Show” and other films of this ilk. How do I know this? I have personally watched Christopher Guest movies with people who couldn’t get their minds around this genre of humor.

As I saw this whole thing unfold, I thought to myself, “They couldn’t possibly have focus-group-tested this stuff.” Or, alternatively, I guess that some hip ad agency had its equally hip friends in somewhere like Los Angeles pre-test these and they scored high. But I can’t help wondering about the reactions of unhip people in Middle America, ethnics and seniors.

And what about Republicans? Casting Ed Begley in the “lead” role was a colossal mistake. Ed is a well-known greenie with a Democrat political agenda.

Using him in such a central role unnecessarily politicized the campaign. Democrats won’t “get this” (“What’s wrong with Ed Begley? I don’t get it. He’s such a nice guy, and funny, too.”), so just let me just ask them to imagine that Chuck Norris or Ted Nugent had been cast as Schlewitt and we spent 2.5 million Obama dollars to run an ad in the Super Bowl. Now do you get it?

I don’t want to see the census fail. I have skin in the game. Last June I wrote here extolling the importance of the census for our nation, its business and commerce, and I urged Republicans to drop their senseless opposition to Bob Groves becoming Census Bureau director.

But unless I see something different occurring soon, I think it’s going to be a bust.

When I look at the so-called campaign by the government to get Americans inoculated for the flu and see that less than 40 percent of us have participated, how can I be optimistic about the success of Schlewitt’s snapshot? The flu campaign outcome is instructive. People can die from this virus, yet many still ignore the warnings. Why? Either they fear side effects or they just don’t care. The census will face similar challenges.

This is not Bob Groves’s grandfather’s world. People aren’t as compliant as they once were when it comes to doing what the government asks. People are a lot more concerned about what they deem “invasions” of their privacy. And, frankly, a lot of us aren’t here legally. Few of these people have skin in the game. They won’t respond to pleas to participate in the census so that “our state will not lose a seat in Congress” or an area might gain a few votes at the state capitol. They don’t even get the whole argument about federal formula funding based on population, even for programs from which they benefit. They just don’t care, for a variety of reasons. And Ed Begley isn’t their guy.

Perhaps there are going to be a lot of micro-targeted campaign efforts aimed at resistant populations. I hope so.

Maybe Director Groves just needs to take Schlewitt off the TV and get in front of the camera himself to level directly with America about what really is at stake, nothing cute or clever about it. Perhaps he should personally address the privacy issue head-on. It’s an elephant-sized lump under the carpet in the middle of America’s living room. Informed content is the heart of successful data collection. Let’s do it.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.