'Snapshot of America': These are Census Bureau ads? Go figure.

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

It seems like another goofball mockumentary from the folks who brought you "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind": Film director Payton Schlewitt wants to create "Snapshot of America," a blockbuster that will literally feature all 300 million Americans -- at once. To realize his grand vision, Schlewitt has assembled his production team, which is charged with organizing one big, big shoot.

But the 30- and 60-second commercials starring the fictional Schlewitt that have been running on TV for the past few weeks aren't promoting a movie. While it might be hard to tell, the ads are actually pushing the U.S. Census Bureau and its $14 billion once-a-decade population count.

The commercials -- directed by Christopher Guest, the writer and director of such satiric films as "Best in Show" -- have elicited some strong reactions, though probably not always the kind the Census Bureau has been hoping for.

Conservatives have blasted the bureau for the cost of its outreach efforts, which included spending $2.5 million to air one of the Schlewitt spots during the Super Bowl -- a debut rated among the worst by those who saw it. Advertising critics have been harsh, too, branding the campaign a failure for its obtuse style and confusing message. Perhaps worse, many viewers seem to have simply tuned out the whole thing.

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The commercials are done mock-documentary-style, as the nitwitty characters plan a photo session that will star "every man, woman and child in this beautiful country of ours," as the pretentious Schlewitt (played by Ed Begley Jr.) puts it. Among other things, the characters squabble over the cost of hiring a helicopter to shoot the mass gathering and whether bears could disrupt it. Schlewitt's nearsighted director of photography (Don Lake) worries about who'll mind the rest of America when everyone is posing for the picture.

Guest directed four commercials and a series of Web videos for the campaign. The cast is part of his repertory of regular film players, including Begley, Lake, Bob Balaban (here playing a bean-counting producer) and Rachael Harris (as the project's overwhelmed location scout).

The only mention of the Census Bureau in the ads comes when a production assistant mutters to a colleague that the 2010 Census is already doing what Schlewitt hopes to do with his "snapshot."

Census spokesman Steve Jost said the agency wanted to take a humorous approach in the opening phase of its awareness campaign because its surveys showed widespread cynicism about government. "Having government officials as the face of [the initial ads] probably wasn't going to work," he said. "We felt that having these familiar actors, and using humor, would be a helpful way to get the message out" that the census was starting anew.

The Guest ads, he said, appeal primarily to younger viewers, who are among the hardest to persuade to return census questionnaires. He wasn't able to say how effective the ads have been in raising awareness of the census, because no surveys have been taken.

The Census Bureau will spend $6.9 million on airtime for the Guest commercials, or less than a third of the $24.9 million it is spending on all advertising during the preliminary awareness phase of its campaign, according to DraftFCB, the bureau's ad agency. In addition to airing during the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the ads have appeared on cable and network programs such as the ABC series "Castle."

By several measures, however, the ads seem to have been met with a shrug. On YouTube, where the Census Bureau has created the Payton Schlewitt Channel, featuring all of Guest's work, some of the videos have received fewer than a hundred views since they were posted online weeks ago. The official Payton Schlewitt page on Facebook had just 722 fans as of Friday evening.

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