Census Bureau counts ad effort a success

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One of the government's grand experiments -- the first paid U.S. Census campaign in history -- is proving its worth.

Census Bureau officials are crowing over the $103 million ad campaign's success in turning around steadily declining rates for mailing back census forms.

Return rates -- that had been falling nearly 10% every decennial census -- not only didn't decline this year, but rose nearly a point to 66%. The 66% rate was 5 points above what the Census Bureau had hoped for.

TRANSLATES INTO SAVINGS

"It certainly worked. We have very high levels of awareness and education," said Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt. The "This is your future. Don't leave it blank" campaign is from Y&R Advertising, New York.

For the Census Bureau, the improvement translates into savings. More returned questionnaires means less need to send out enumerators to collect information on people who didn't file.

Better still for the Census Bureau, targeting 60% of its ad dollars at populations most unlikely to file appears to have also worked. Mr. Prewitt said return rates this year from difficult-to-reach populations were much closer to the rates for the general population. He added, that the bureau couldn't quantify how much was due to the ads and how much can be attributed to community efforts.

But he said, "There is no doubt in my mind that we stopped the decline in mail-back in part because of the advertising campaign."

Until the current census, the bureau had relied on the Ad Council's voluntary efforts for publicity. Public service ads, however, were difficult to target to specific populations. And depending on the media for public service messages also left the Census Bureau unable to assure its messages ran at similar weights everywhere.

GLOBAL APPROACH WITHIN THE U.S.

Y&R, with partners Bravo Group, New York (Hispanic); Kang & Lee, New York (Asian); G&G Advertising, Albuquerque, N.M. (Native American); and the Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York (African-American) produced print ads in 17 languages and TV ads in 11.

Terry Dukes, exec VP-account managing director at Y&R, said the agency learned it was possible to take the global approach to a U.S. campaign in dealing with diverse populations.

"We took a strategy that works and didn't lock in a particular approach, giving each agency the ability to do what it thought was best," she said.

"If we are doing this kind of census again, undoubtedly I would recommend a paid advertising campaign," Mr. Prewitt said.

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