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The U.S. Census Bureau, which for decades has relied on pro bono messages to reach consumers, will switch to a whopping $100 million paid ad blitz for the 2000 census, a move sure to set agencies nationwide scrambling for the business.

Citing concern about declines in the number of questionnaires returned and problems getting public-service ads aired at times when they can be most effective, the bureau is about to start a long search process that will conclude next summer with selection of an agency or consortium of agencies.

The main goal of the marketing campaign-an effort also likely to include a site on the World Wide Web-will be to increase the return of mailed census forms and avoid the need to dispatch human census takers door-to-door.

"The mail response rate is declining very severely and it costs us $25 million for each percent of mail not returned," said Kenneth Meyer, the bureau's special assistant to the assistant director for communications. The bureau fears the return rate will fall from 65% in 1990 to between 50% and 55% in 2000.


The bureau believes the decline is in part due to its lack of control over placement of census ads.

"In 1990, we used pro bono advertising. While we found it effective in some areas, because it was pro bono it didn't always reach markets we wanted in the times we wanted to reach it," Mr. Meyer said. "We felt our strategy would be better if we could place advertising."

Laverne Collins, chief of the bureau's public relations office, said the problems showed up clearly in the last census.

"We found that in 1990, when we didn't have control over ad placement, our ads sometimes played in the wee hours of the morning. It's not like the 1980s when [broadcast] stations were required to run public service announcements," she said.

She added that the bureau felt the public service time available has decreased since 1990.

The bureau's traditional problem is reaching a very diverse group of residents, including some who don't speak English.


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

Mr. Meyer said the bureau will likely give agencies a choice of coming in with a consortium or subcontracting specific work to reach targeted ethnic audiences.

The $100 million, which needs yearly Congressional appropriations, will be spent over 4 years, the bulk between 1999 and 2000.

Mr. Meyer said the bureau is starting the agency hiring process now because of the length of the government's hiring procedure and because it wants to ensure sufficient time for the selected agency to do research and prepare a campaign that can be used in a three-city test of census methods being conducted in 1998.


While agencies are likely to begin immediately lighting up the bureau's switchboard, federal rules bar census officials from offering little more than basic information on the process right now.

Late this fall, the bureau will publish a "statement of need" in Commerce Business Daily and will follow that with meetings with interested agencies, then a request for proposals, then pitches before actually making a hire next summer.

Ms. Collins said the bureau also is proceeding now because it wants some extra time to assure materials are distributed.

"There are some logistical problems when you have a promotion across the nation, and we had a few problems last time," she said.

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