Census Bureau buys Super Bowl spot

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In what may be the most expensive 30-second spot ever paid for by U.S. taxpayers, the Census Bureau plans to run a commercial on ABC's Super Bowl broadcast this Sunday.

The commercial from Y&R Advertising, New York, is slated to run in the first position of the eighth commercial break in Sunday's telecast. Although a single :30 on Super Bowl XXXIV has recently sold for between $2.3 million and $3 million, Y&R officials said the government got it for less than half the $3 million.

Another, unidentified client of Young & Rubicam's Media Edge bought the spot early when prices were lower, then chose not to use the, allowing the Census Bureau to take over the time, said Terry Dukes, exec VP-group account manager at Y&R Advertising.

The Census Bureau's Super Bowl commercial suggests that overcrowded schools could be hurt by wrong census information; it is uses the bureau's "This is your future. Don't leave it blank'' theme.

As recently as a week ago, Y&R said that while it had begun an extensive "education'' effort in a number of languages, targeted at population groups that in 1990 proved most lax in returning census questionnaires, its "motivational'' ads for the general population wouldn't break until Feb. 21. It also said the school ad wouldn't break until then.

Ms. Dukes said the U.S. Department of Commerce, under which the Census Bureau operates, hadn't at that point given final approval for running the Super Bowl ad. All the other motivational ads will still run after Feb. 21, she added.

"We don't make these decisions lightly,'' she said. "We originally were going to start on the 21st because our budget wouldn't allow anything else. But when the venue came up and we realized we could get it at a fabulous price that we could afford with the savings we had made in buying the general [advertising] package . . .

"The savings and impact of the venue and the price gave us a cheap jumpstart. It is the right audience, and it is an exciting venue.''

Census officials defended spending nearly $1.5 million of taxpayer money on a single 30 second of network TV.

"It's a great value for the taxpayers that will generate awareness for the census,'' said Steve Jost, assistant director of the census. "We have decades of research indicating the more the American public is aware of the census, the higher it will respond.

"It is expensive to try to reach every adult in America but that is our mandate. We are at that point where we need to get public attention, and this was an attention-getting opportunity too great to pass up.''

U.S. Rep. Dan Miller (R., Fla.), a former marketing professor who heads the House Government Reform Committee's census subcommittee, expressed some surprise at the Super Bowl purchase but said it sounded like a good value.

"I'm a big supporter of the paid advertising program,'' he said. "The higher the mail response rate, the less costly the census is to the government. So if we can do anything to increase the response rate, we save money. If people don't return [the questionnaire] by mail, we have to send out people to knock on doors.''

The Super Bowl's high ratings and visibility have made it the most expensive buy in TV and one that government agencies have traditionally shied away from. The U.S. Army has bought ads in the past in pregame programming, but at least in recent years there have apparently been no government ads in the game itself.

The Super Bowl ad purchase climaxes the changes in the way the government is advertising the census, the first in history to use paid advertising. The Census Bureau will spend $103 million on ads for this year's census.

In 1990 and in previous censuses, the Census Bureau relied on the Advertising Council and donated media for census messages. With response rates to census questionnaires dropping from 78% in 1970 to 65% in 1990 and expected to drop to 55% this year, and concern that donated media couldn't assure the needed reach to target populations, the Census Bureau convinced Congress this time to switch to paid media.

Copyright January 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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