MyTwoCensus.com has received a fair share of e-mails from Americans who are all asking the same question: Why did the Census Bureau choose to purchase a multimillion dollar Super Bowl advertisement? Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner has responded to this and other related questions below:
Questions from Stephen Robert Morse, Founder/Editor of MyTwoCensus.com: Whose idea was it to air an ad for the Census Bureau during the Super Bowl? Who chose Christopher Guest as the director of the ad? Who chose which specific ad or ads will run? Which ad or ads will run? Were there ever focus groups to see how effective the ads were? If so, where and when did these focus groups take place? What were the results of these studies?
Answers from Stephen Buckner, Assistant Division Chief, Decennial Programs, Public Information Office:
The essential challenge for the Census is that because it happens only once
every ten years, many U.S. residents are unaware of when it happens (in
March) and how they participate (by mail). Our own research in late 2009
showed less than 10% of Americans surveyed correctly answered that the 2010
Census occurred in March.
The first goal of our promotion efforts is to
raise awareness of the when and how the Census works. We have a very
limited window of opportunity to achieve our goals Jan – April, and
therefore need programming that delivers high ratings. The 2000 Census
paid advertising campaign also had a Super Bowl ad for just this reason.
The Super Bowl is the top-rated and most highly anticipated television
event in the U.S. An ad running once in the Super Bowl has the potential
to reach 45% adults over age 18. For comparison, CSI which is one of the
top rated programs on television delivers a 6.6 rating with adults, which
is a fraction of the reach of the Super Bowl. A 30 second spot on the
top-rated regularly scheduled show in America, American Idol costs $450,000
and has a 9.5 rating, or just 9.5% of adults are watching. The Super Bowl
reaches 100 million viewers at a very efficient price compared to other
The Super Bowl is rare, in that viewers are just as tuned in to see the
commercials as the program itself. Commercials that air on the Super Bowl
have a multiplier effect. Advertisers are mentioned in multiple news media
outlets and viewers will typically look to view them online almost
immediately after airing. Therefore, airing once in the Super Bowl creates
significant buzz leading to additional viewing potential.
Our media buy with CBS consists of (1) 30 second ad in the 3rd Quarter.
CBS provided added value in the form of (2) more 30 second ads in the
pre-game show and an additional (2-3) 12-second vignettes featuring James
Brown delivering a message on behalf of the Census. We believe the message
delivered by James Brown who is the host of the day, will carry great
weight with viewers.
We did not choose the Super Bowl itself for an ad, or at the expense of
some other programming. We went where the audience was to be found, and
CBS put the Super Bowl into their proposal for all Census ad dollars, along
with the NCAA finals and other high profile programming. NBC similarly
offered us special programming for advertising during the Olympics.
We did conduct focus groups and other research for all of our paid
advertising concepts in 2009, including the concept of a “Snap Shot of 300
million Americans” which became the ads being directed by Christopher
Guest. They tested very positively. We conducted a total of 115 focus
groups in 37 markets cities across the United States for all our
advertising, television, radio, print, digital and out door.
The first ad in the series is currently airing and will also air during the
Super Bowl pre-game. A new will air during the game, but if we told you
what it was all about, it would spoil all the suspense. While we reply on
the professional expertise and advice of our expert advertising
contractors, the Census Bureau is responsible for these ads and their
Finally, Super Bowl advertisers see a significant lift in internet searches
which is a great opportunity for Census to drive traffic to 2010census.gov
to further educate viewers on the Census.