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$133 million ad campaign promotes census participation

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; A22

Over the next few months, it will be hard to escape hearing about the 2010 Census.

The Census Bureau unveiled a $133 million advertising campaign Thursday that urges people to mail back the questionnaires that will be sent out in mid-March. The ads, in 28 languages, aim to save taxpayers' money by reducing the need for temporary workers to survey people who don't return their forms.

Some ads will be featured on high-viewership television shows such as the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday and the Super Bowl in early February. But more than half of the budget has been set aside for media outlets that target groups undercounted in previous censuses, including African Americans, Hispanics and others that have many recent immigrants who may not speak English.

"We're proud of this," Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves said of the campaign's multicultural focus.

The paid advertising is part of a $340 million campaign to promote the once-a-decade count. The money will also pay for census material for schoolchildren, a traveling road show of census buses at parades and festivals around the country and partnerships with groups that can get distribute give-away trinkets and placards.

Officials envision commuters being blanketed with the message that the census is easy, important and unthreatening. Commuters will hear ads on their car radios or see placards on buses and subways. Their children might repeat what Dora the Explorer says about the census.

The initial ads will encourage people to mail back their census forms. Starting in April, ads will encourage people to open their doors to census takers.

Paid advertising was first used in the 2000 Census and is credited with turning around a declining rate of response. In that census, 33 percent of the households that were mailed census forms did not return them promptly. Each percentage point of nonresponding residents costs the government $80 million to $90 million because of the number of people hired to knock on doors, officials say. Ad spending for this year's census will be 20 percent higher than in 2000.

Hundreds of ads have been drafted in a United Nations of languages, including Tagalog, Yiddish, Hmong, Khmer, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and two dialects of Chinese.

The emphasis in the message varies with the audience. Several ads geared toward Spanish speakers, for instance, mention that the census is confidential and that the bureau cannot divulge their immigration status.

Even the props change in some TV ads. Asian television spots show a family standing before a fireplace, but the mantle with the Chinese family holds a box with Chinese calligraphy. In the Cambodian version, it has been replaced by a small figure of the principal temple at Angkor Wat.

Apart from the $61 million set aside for English language mass media, the biggest share, $25.5 million, is for Hispanic audiences. In addition, $23 million is being spent to reach African Americans and $13.5 million for ads in several Asian languages.

The division of ad dollars has been criticized by some media executives who say they are not getting their fair share.

Danny Bakewell, president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents about 200 black-owned newspapers, said the $2.5 million budgeted for African American publications is inadequate.

"I think the census is setting us up to have the biggest catastrophe of an undercount of black Americans in the history of the census," he said.

Census officials said most of the $23 million being spent to reach African Americans -- up from $17 million in 2000 -- is going to television and radio spots, which market research suggests are most effective. Print ads will run in 140 African American newspapers, potentially reaching 82 percent of the intended population, said Steve Jost, a spokesman for the census.

Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, said that although the $25.5 million being spent on Hispanic advertising is a significant increase from the $19 million spent in 2000, Hispanics are more dispersed in 2010, and some states have few organizations to help spread the message.

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