Census Ads Are Misguided, Misleading and Miss The Point

We Love Christopher Guest, but the Upper West Side Isn't Exactly a Cross-Section of America

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We here at AdReview take a lot of pride in turning every piece of criticism into a tidy little 600-word essay, with a beginning, middle and end; a theme, an argument, a narrative, the whole deal. This week, however, we can but sputter.

Marketer: U.S. Census
Agency: DraftFCB, New York
What a weird choice to build the ongoing awareness campaign around a troupe of well-heeled, middle-aged white people.
Having seen much of the ad and PSA campaign for the 2010 U.S. Census, the AdReview team has so many disconnected misgivings that the best we can do is blurt them out ad hoc, like someone coming out of anesthesia, or talk radio. Starting with this little annoyance:

WTF is up with the mailboxes? In the various spots from DraftFCB and a host of other agencies joined in the effort, we see smiley Americans of all hues slipping their census forms into solid blue letterboxes, whose boxes are oddly redacted of all logos, typefaces and anything else connecting them with the U.S. Postal Service.

Huh? Are we to assume that the U.S. Census Bureau, now undertaking the most-expansive, most-inclusive counting project in the history of the republic, couldn't locate the post-office official who signs off on these things? Just sayin' is all.

OK, here's something more substantial. Who's seen "Waiting for Guffman"? How about "A Mighty Wind"? "Best in Show"? These are all hilarious ensemble mockumentaries from director Christopher Guest, star of the proto-hilarious-mocumentary "This is Spinal Tap." For some of us, Guest is a god of pop-cultural satire, and his actor pals demigods: Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr. We basically worship them. Some of us have it so bad, we even loved "For Your Consideration."

But there aren't many of us, and most of the cult lives between 79th and 110th, between Broadway and Riverside Drive.

Which ain't exactly a cross-section of America. Because if it is, there are a lot more Jews in Birkenstocks out there than we'd realized.

What a weird choice to build the ongoing awareness campaign around a troupe of well-heeled, middle-aged white people who are famous mainly to well-heeled middle-aged white people. Hmm.

Also, for reasons that baffle us, when Christopher Guest does 30-second spots, he tends to utterly lose his mojo. His stuff for DirecTV, despite being populated with his pals, is confusing and painfully un-hilarious. Likewise here. In the census spots, Begley plays an obtuse director tasked with taking a "snapshot of America," which he intends to accomplish by literally gathering up 300 million people and taking a snapshot of them. The campaign takes us through their planning for the event, attempting to make comedic hay of the ensemble's deadpan obtuseness.

It's a formula that works when particular types are being parodied -- community theater folk, Hollywood B-listers, dog-owning yuppies, TV executives -- but not when the premise is absurd. Guest is a genius at 105% of reality. At 200% reality he sucks. This won't be funny at 91st and Broadway; it'll be white noise everywhere else.

There's one issue with the campaign that confounds us, too -- maybe not so glaring, but ultimately more serious. Namely: the premise. In more than 100 pieces of communication in 28 languages, the campaign tells people to fill out the census form because it could mean increased funding for their communities. "We can't move forward till you mail it back."

Oh, really? That proposition is a half truth. The federal-budget allocation is a zero sum game. Yes, the census largely determines who gets more money. It equally determines who gets less money. To present it as unlocking better roads and smaller classrooms for all is just dishonest. Even state lotteries are more candid. What they say is, "You've gotta play to win."

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