COUNTDOWN TO 2000;PEOPLE, COME TO YOUR CENSUS;PLANS TO IMPROVE RESPONSE RATE INCLUDE $100 MILLION AD CAMPAIGN

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The U.S. Census Bureau will be entering 2000 minus a traditional part of its history: the plain brown wrapper.

Instead of taking advantage of the technology that marketers have adopted during this decade, the U.S. Census Bureau hopes to enter the 2000s with an integrated message that jumps from pre-Census posters and ads, this time directly to the envelope that every household in the country receives for census day, April 1, 2000.

SAME LOOK

"We want to put messages on the envelope to get people not to throw it away," says Kenneth Meyer, special assistant to the assistant director for communications. "We are looking to have the same look on the piece that eventually comes to the door as that in our ad campaign."

It costs the Census Bureau millions of dollars sending census takers out to track down people who don't answer the questionnaires. Further, response rates have been dropping in recent censuses.

"The mail response rate is declining very severely and it costs us $25 million for each percent of mail not returned," says Mr. Meyer. "If the decline continues, we will go down to between 50% and 55%" of forms returned.

$100 MILLION IN ADS

So the Census Bureau's answer this time is to hire an ad agency and buy $100 million in advertising time and space-much of it in 1999 and 2000-rather than using the Advertising Council and relying mainly on public service announcements by the ad and media industries.

The Census Bureau is hoping the switch to paid advertising will assure its message reaches all the groups it wants to reach. In 1990, Mr. Meyer says the free media offered reached some targets very well, but others not as well.

The bureau is still very early in the long governmental contractural process of searching for an agency.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES

While the selected agency will determine specific strategies, Mr. Meyer makes clear the shop selected will have major advantages over the agencies used 10 years ago.

Then, equipment and technology limited the format for the millions of census forms and precluded much in the way of marketing message on b&w forms and an envelope.

This time, optical scanning will allow the Census Bureau much greater latitude in what can be included both on the form and envelope. The Bureau expects that the result is better and stronger graphics aimed at getting people to fill out the form.

The Census Bureau expects to use a variety of advertising vehicles in 2000, with direct mail backing up outdoor posters, TV and radio spots and print ads to be prepared in a number of different languages.

The bureau anticipates support from a major PR campaign.

TESTS START IN `98

The campaign will kick off with a 1998 test in a few markets, and then in earnest most probably in 1999 with major advertising climaxing around April 1, 2000.

While the Census Bureau will hire an agency, the actual selection process is taking a while as the government goes through its extensive contracting process.

Later this fall, the bureau is due to publish a "statement of need" in Commerce Business Daily. Then a meeting will be held with interested agencies, and then a request for proposals. Only then will interviews be conducted with agencies, with the agency decision set for next summer.

During the process, federal rules bar census officials from offering little more than basic information on the process.

Mr. Meyer says the bureau wants to ensure the chosen agency has sufficient time to do research and prepare an integrated campaign that can be used in a three-city test of census method being conducted in 1988.

In 1990, the Ad Council used four agencies to produce Census Bureau work: Ogilvy & Mather, New York, for general advertising; Mingo Group, New York, for ads aimed at African-Americans; Castor Advertising, New York, for Hispanic ads; and Muse Cordero Chen, Los Angeles, for Asian-Americans.

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