Census Under Fire Over Ad Dollars

Lawmakers continually questioned who those partners were, and whether the Census was digging deep enough into communities. They said their constituents in California, Utah and Texas had expressed dismay at widespread disorganization at the regional level.

A congressional subcommittee wants to know if the Census Bureau’s multi-million dollar advertising campaign is reaching communities that can be the hardest to count.

At a meeting Wednesday night on Capitol Hill of the House Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee, a parade of congress people worried that the Census has not done enough to engage local and ethnic media, which Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) called “the bibles of certain communities.”

Over $340 million has been allocated to the Census Bureau for a promotion and advertising campaign to avoid an undercount, part of an overall Census budget of $15 billion, triple the bureau’s 2000 budget.

But with just five weeks to go before the April 1 deadline for mailing back Census questionnaires, lawmakers wondered if that money was being targeted effectively. They were quick to criticize Census officials for a culture of “unresponsiveness,” and for a campaign that often seemed to rely on “big talent” rather than local voices.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) noted that $118 million had been allocated for “production, labor, and ‘other’” in budget notes. Many lawmakers on the panel, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), said they still hadn’t received clear budget breakdowns for which communities were receiving what share of the ad dollars, and how many ad firms the Census had subcontracted with.

“I, for one, am terribly disappointed in the Census in giving us details,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) as the hearing began on Wednesday night.

Much of the subcommittee’s criticism centered around the conduct of the Madison Avenue firm DraftFCB, which is coordinating the Census Bureau advertising campaign.

In questioning the campaign’s effectiveness in reaching communities that had been undercounted in 2000, Chaffetz cited the Census Super Bowl ad, which cost $2.5 million, and ads during the Olympics that had cost over $5 million. He called attention to the Census on-line campaign that had yielded only 8,500 followers on Facebook, 2,400 followers on Twitter and 64 uploads on You Tube. Noting the low numbers, Chaffetz said, “How do you justify millions of dollars out the door? It’s a mystery to me.”

Jeff Tarakajian of DraftFCB defended the campaign by saying that awareness about the Census “was extremely high for where we are now,” and that 54 percent of the paid media budget was allocated to ethnic audiences in 2010 compared to 47 percent in the 2000 Census. Groves added that over 200,000 “partner organizations” around the country had been called on to help get the word out.

But lawmakers continually questioned who those partners were, and whether the Census was digging deep enough into communities. They said their constituents in California, Utah and Texas had expressed dismay at widespread disorganization at the regional level.

“I am increasingly concerned about what I am hearing from black newspapers and black radio stations,” said Waters. “It appears that our message of reaching the undercounted is not being respected.”

That’s unnecessary, said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, who appeared before the subcommittee.

“There’s no question that the ethnic media ‘get’ the Census — they get their communities’ stake in a complete count,” Close said.

She described meeting with nearly 600 ethnic media representatives around the country in 12 roundtables with local and national Census officials over the past year. At those briefings, she said, “You could cut the enthusiasm with a knife.”

But 47 percent of those outlets were left out of an ad buy, and 70 percent reported never hearing back from Census advertising firms, including DraftFCB, Close noted. Their experience with the Census was one of “anxiety and confusion” over how they could get involved, she said.

“The selection process that you use for minority ad buys is unacceptable,” echoed Jackson Lee.

Also appearing before the committee were Karen Narasaki of the Asian American Justice Center, Arturo Vargas of National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), and Danny Blakewell, chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).

Vargas cited an over-reliance by the Census on using Spanish-language media in reaching Latino audiences, and not enough messaging in reaching the 9.1 million Latinos in the United States who only speak English at home.

One reason for the widespread feeling of disengagement, said Narasaki, was that a lot of decisions had been made about who would be working with the Census many years earlier – years before a recession and heightened fears over immigration status had changed America.

“One of the biggest issues to overcome among Asian and Latino audiences is distrust in government,” she said. “It’s the media in those communities who are going to help. An ad on the Super Bowl is not going to do it.”

But panelists agreed that it was not too late to turn the tide. As the Census enters the third phase of its campaign – the crucial “nonresponse phase” – many called for a greater investment in the ethnic media sector.

“The Black Press of America needs at least $10 million,” said Bakewell, head of NNPA. “Black people do not live in only 16 markets in America. Black newspapers, radio stations, black churches — that’s where we are.”

Close, of New America Media, called on Congress to invest in the ethnic media sector directly, so that the media themselves could create the messages that would most effectively mobilize their communities for the 2010 Census.

Close cited one targeting the Native American community where a woman in jeans walks across an open plain, towards three tepees.

“These ads were created for a Native American community that is nowhere near the plains and who do not live in tepees,” said Close. “They were offensive, and the media didn’t use them.”

Another ad was brought to the overhead screen, created by the Hoopa tribe of Northern California for the Two Rivers Tribune. Across a local landscape the ad read, “Save our Water, Save Our Way of Life – Stand Up and Be Counted! Census 2010.”

That kind of unique messaging will “move the needle those extra percentage points that will pay off in hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Close.

Lawmakers called for Census officials to turn over several documents relating to ad buys, sub-contractor fees, and correspondence, and demanded greater transparency. There was talk of investigation several times throughout the night. And again and again, panelists were asked if they thought it would be more effective to use local media to act as “trusted messengers.”

“Your tepees were the icing on the cake,” said Waters to Close, at the door of the conference room, as panelists filed out for the evening, four hours after the hearing began, at almost midnight.

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