The U.S. Census Bureau last week said it expects to spend $70 million on advertising from mid-January through mid-April, part of its $102.8 million campaign for the 2000 census. That will hit just as ad schedules for presidential candidates are pumped up for key state primaries.
A number of states have moved up their presidential primaries next year in hopes of having more influence on candidate selection. The result could be a difficult four- to six-week period in which to buy spot TV time, especially for national advertisers who use the so-called scatter market to get more reasonable prices.
In 1996, the most influential primaries were spread out over three months. But in 2000, primaries will be held every Tuesday starting in February and running through mid-March.
The climax will be March 7, as candidates appeal to voters in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
The census spending -- most of it national -- has yet to get final congressional approval. But the plan is for the bulk of the money to be spent from February through the beginning of April.
Y&R Advertising, New York, is the lead agency for the multimedia, multicultural push. Plans call for TV spots in 10 languages in a bid to boost reply rates to census questionnaires.
In the past, the Census Bureau relied on public service ads.
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"I might urge clients [advertising products and services] to take a hiatus," said Aaron Cohen, exec VP-broadcast at Horizon Media, New York. "But if you are going to need time, my advice is going to be that they have got to go in earlier than normal -- lay in a schedule before the politicians get their act together."
Of course, a quick win by the front-runners, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, could mean a sudden hiatus in advertising, with the candidates putting funds back into their coffers for later in the summer.
"It sounds to me that if George W. Bush continues to roll on, the press will ordain him before voters have a chance to take a shot," said David Bienstock, president of Target Enterprises, Encino, Calif.
Mr. Bienstock buys time for referendum campaigns and GOP candidates; four years ago, he worked on Sen. Bob Dole's campaign.
"If Bush wins [early], I don't see intense advertising," he added, especially since a number of states vote at once.
Mike Murphy, a principal in Murphy, Pintak, Guthier, Hudome, McLean, Va., and a past adviser to several GOP presidential candidates, predicted that the rush of primaries will force contenders to look to 20 markets for the bulk of their spending.
PRICES COULD RISE
Agency media buyers said they expect to continue to be able to buy ad time, but did agree that the combination of the political buys and the census ads could affect pricing.
"It's a tough marketplace anyhow, with all this local dot-com business, especially in the West," said Mr. Cohen. "If it brings more money, the stations will be rubbing their hands gleefully waiting for the influx of money."
Rich Hamilton, president-CEO of Zenith Media, New York, said he didn't expect the local-market problems to have much impact on national advertisers.
The Census Bureau's spending "by itself would not be enough to generate a problem," he said, "but added to an already robust marketplace, it's going to be a difficult year for supply and demand."
BOOST FOR Y&R
The census media spending represents a major billings boost for Y&R and its partner agencies. The Census Bureau last week said it will spend $166.6 million on all marketing programs, well above the $100 million originally anticipated.
An initial $19 million educational effort will start in mid-November, followed by the $70 million in motivational advertising in mid-January. That will be followed by $14 million in advertising starting in mid-April aimed at getting people who didn't respond initially to either send in questionnaires or work with enumerators.
The theme of the campaign: "Census 2000. This is your future. Don't leave it