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A Census Campaign That Speaks in Many Tongues

Published: January 13, 2010

A campaign to encourage participation in the 2010 census reflects many of the major changes since the last census in the population that is to be counted. For one thing, the advertising, marketing and promotional efforts, to be described at a news conference on Thursday, are being produced in 28 languages – the most ever, according to the executives responsible for the census. By comparison, a campaign to encourage Americans to take part in the 2000 census was done in 17 languages.

“There’s more sensitivity to language subgroups, cultural subgroups,” said Robert M. Groves, director of the United States Census Bureau at the Commerce Department.

Among the languages being added are Armenian, Farsi, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Urdu and Yiddish, while Chinese is being divided into Cantonese and Mandarin. They will be used in ads along with English, Spanish and tongues like Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Polish, Russian, Thai and Vietnamese.
Another big difference from a decade ago is that the campaign will run in many media outlets that did not exist in 2000, among them Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube, along with a blog by Mr. Groves. That is in response to the profound changes in the last 10 years in media usage.
The ads in the new media will join ads in traditional media, among them television, radio, magazines, newspapers and billboards. There will also be unconventional elements like a Nascar sponsorship and a cross-country road tour of vehicles containing census exhibits, led by a 46-foot trailer.

A third change from the 2000 campaign is evident in the tone of the new initiative. Then, ads carried this theme: “It’s your future. Don’t leave it blank.” By contrast, the new campaign takes a more empowering tack with themes like “It’s in your hands” and “We can’t move forward until you mail it back.”

Research among consumers indicated “a fundamental shift in attitude toward government and themselves” in the last decade, said Jeff Tarakajian, executive vice president for client services at the New York office of DraftFCB, a part of the Interpublic Group of Companies and the lead agency on the campaign.

Respondents said they now “felt more of a sense of ‘I need to be my own master.’ ” Mr. Tarakajian said. “And what came out of that was the idea that ‘It’s our census, it’s up to me, my community, to make sure the census works.’ “

Another difference is in the cost of the campaigns. For the 2000 census – the first with a budget for paid ads, rather than relying on the media to donate time and space – the Commerce Department spent an estimated $100 million to $150 million. Ten years later, the budget has grown to $340 million.

The bigger budget will help the campaign appear during TV coverage of big events like the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

“It’s important to have broad messaging” to suggest the scope of the census, said Michael Simons, chief creative officer at DraftFCB New York, as well as to run more focused ads.

“Some themes run through all the ads,” Mr. Simons said, among them “the call to action to take part in the census” and how the form is composed of 10 questions.

In other instances, ads are being tailored to resonate with target audiences. For example, a print ad by GlobalHue aimed at African-Americans, which features the former basketball star Dikembe Mutombo, declares: “Better health care, schools and roads are all within our reach. If we each just take 10 minutes to answer 10 simple questions, we can help determine how $400 billion per year in federal funds will be dispersed in our communities.”

And many ads aimed at Hispanics include children to signal that “it’s critical people participate because this will bring our children a better future,” said Luciana Gomez, vice president and group account director at the Latino division of GlobalHue.

Another change from 2000 is that the census is trying to steer clear of a polarized political climate that has prompted at least one elected official to suggest that respondents should send a message of protest by answering only one of the questions.

Staying clear of politics may prove difficult, however, as evidenced by a report about the campaign this week in a new blog from Tucker Carlson, the Daily Caller (dailycaller.com). The headline dismissed the campaign as “$340 million in tote bags, snacks and tailgate parties” and described the road tour as “driving around the country and hanging out with football fans.”

And there have been complaints about posters, independent of the official census campaign, created and distributed to churches by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The posters invoked the Gospel of Luke by declaring: “This is how Jesus was born. Joseph and Mary participated in the census.” Another organization, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, deemed the posters blasphemous.

“There will always be sensitivity on a number of different issues when there’s a request for personal information,” said Damien Reid, vice president and account director at GlobalHue. “The best way to combat that is total transparency, to be as clear as possible.”

To that end, the blog written by Mr. Groves, the census director, includes posts with headlines like “Misinformation About the Census” and “Why Is the Census Mandatory?”

Asked about the potential for controversy, Mr. Groves replied: “You can’t predict what it will be. That it will happen is certain. Good things may happen, too.”

In addition to DraftFCB and GlobalHue, there are more than a dozen other agencies working on the campaign. Among them are five others owned by Interpublic, including the IW Group, for ads aimed at Asian-Americans, and Jack Morton Worldwide, for the road tour and other events.