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2010 Census Ad Campaign Positioned to Save Taxpayers Millions

Sun Feb 07 2010
Robert Groves
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There has been some recent criticism about spending taxpayer money on advertising for the 2010 Census. Experience from the 2000 Census, however, shows that paid advertising can motivate people to respond to the census form by mail, saving the taxpayer millions.

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The Census Bureau projects for every one percentage point increase in the national mail back participation rate for the 2010 Census, the federal government saves $85 million. It costs substantially more money to send census takers to households that fail to mail back their short 10 question form than it does to receive it by mail.

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The Census Bureau launched its first ever paid advertising campaign for the 2000 Census. Prior to that, the Census Bureau relied on public service announcements that aired whenever television stations and print media could fit a pro bono advertisement into their schedules. The end result in 2000 was a census that turned around the three-decade decline in response rates and exceeded the 1990 Census mail response rate. At the same time, the 2000 Census reduced the differential undercount of minority groups compared to the rest of the nation.

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Because of the higher response rate, the Census Bureau saved at least $305 million and returned that money to Congress following the census. The advertising campaign in the 2000 Census cost about $100 million, a $205 million return on investment.

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In 2001, Secretary of Commerce Don Evans testified before the Senate and praised the Census Bureau for its outreach efforts: “The Bureau successfully implemented paid advertising for the first time in Census 2000, placing over $100 million in media buys designed to educate and motivate the public to respond.”

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In a separate Commerce Department report in 2001 – Improving Our Measure of America: What Can Census 2000 Teach Us in Planning for 2010 – the Inspector General Jonnie Frazier (1997-2007) said, “Census 2000’s paid advertising and partnership campaign achieved its intended goal – the response rate of 67 percent surpassed the 1990 response rate of 65 percent, despite projections of lower participation. The campaigns should be repeated for 2010, and perhaps expanded to reach greater numbers of people from hard-to-count populations.”

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Funding an integrated communications campaign for the 2010 Census was a business decision. By investing in an awareness and motivation campaign now, we can encourage more people to take 10 minutes to fill out the 10 question form and mail it back when it arrives in March.

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In addition to advertising, the Census Bureau has also launched other initiatives: a national road tour traveling to communities to increase awareness that the census is coming, a partnership program that now has more than 185,000 partners nationwide, and a Census in Schools program seeking to educate students about the nation’s population and how it has changed since the first census in 1790.

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I’d like nothing more than to return money once again back to the taxpayers following this census because they mailed back the census forms at a record rate. In the end, the American public’s willingness to participate in the 2010 Census will determine its success and how much money we’re able to save and return back to Congress.

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Director Robert Groves

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