Fed official: Census Bureau ad campaign could save government millions

The Commerce Department's top watchdog on Friday defended the federal government's census advertising campaign as a concerted effort to save taxpayers money.

Skeptics have railed on the Census Bureau's decision to spend about $130 million this year to advertise the decennial count, taking special aim at the $2.5 million federal officials paid to air a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.

But Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser cautioned critics not to judge the ads' effectiveness too prematurely, as the Census Bureau's entire "integrated communications campaign" -- which will cost a total of $300 million this -- could improve form return rates and actually save the government money.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Zinser explained every that 1 percent of households to return their census forms on time will save the federal government about $80 million to $90 million -- money that would normally be spent on nagging those individuals to complete their surveys.

Consequently, that means just a 10 percent improvement in on-time submissions could possibly save taxpayers $800 million to $900 million this year, he predicted.

"The Congress did want the Census Bureau to use paid media... because the intent is that if you advertise, more people will respond and be aware of the census and participate in the census," Zinser said.

"So I hope the advertisements are successful," he said, noting the White House expects 65 percent to submit their forms on time, even without the ads. "There are different measures that we're using this time around... to see whether or not the ads have been helpful, but we'll just have to see at the end of the campaign."

However, Zinser's words on Friday are unlikely to assuage Republicans, in particular, who have mostly decried the bureau's expense as wasteful.

While all agree the census is important, as it determines states' representation in Congress, GOP lawmakers remain unconvinced an advertisement campaign can actually increase turnout.

"While the census is very important to AZ, we shouldn’t be wasting $2.5 million taxpayer dollars to compete with ads for Doritos!" Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted in frustration, just before the Super Bowl ad aired.