WASHINGTON -- The Census Bureau unveiled its first-ever paid advertising campaign yesterday as part of a $167 million effort to reach minority groups that have been missed in past national head counts.
The campaign is aimed at reversing a 30-year trend toward fewer Americans completing and returning the census forms that are mailed out once a decade. The ads will target groups that have historically been undercounted: blacks, Latinos, American Indians and new immigrants from all countries.
From January through April, the peak season for pushing the forms, the Census Bureau will rank behind only McDonald's and Burger King as a national advertiser, said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat and the ranking minority member on the House subcommittee that oversees the census.
The campaign will feature more than 250 spots in 17 languages on 3,000 media outlets, including television, radio, newspaper and magazine advertisements, and billboards.
Required by the Constitution, the census is used to apportion the states' membership in the House of Representatives and to distribute billion of dollars of federal funds.
Census participation has fallen in recent decades. In 1990, the return rate was 65 percent for the forms mailed to the nation's 120 million households. That was down from 75 percent in 1980 and nearly 80 percent in 1970.
Without the new advertising campaign, a 61 percent return rate had been projected for the 2000 census, said Kenneth Prewitt, the bureau director.
Prewitt said the falling response rates are related to changes in attitudes and demographics. Distrust and indifference toward government has grown, he said.
In addition, a growing proportion of the populace is made up of immigrants or their offspring, he said, and those newcomers often don't understand the census forms or their purpose.
An advertising campaign aimed at some Hispanic groups will stress the confidentiality of the forms, said Prewitt. The census counts resident aliens and citizens, and some communities fear that the forms will be used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport those who are in the country illegally.
Prewitt said the census ads are the opposite of most advertising, which is aimed at the most likely customers for a product. The Census Bureau wants to reach the audience that is least likely to fill out its forms.
The advertising campaign was designed by Young & Rubicam, with help from several other agencies. Before it is over, the Census Bureau estimated, 99 percent of Americans will have seen or heard 50 of the spots on the air or in print. People in the targeted groups will have seen 100 or more.
The campaign will consist of more than 130,000 announcements during a six-month period.