The Indianapolis Colts were not the only team to fumble a grand opportunity on Super Bowl Sunday — so did the United States Census Bureau. Using $2.5 million of taxpayer money, the bureau ran a commercial spot intended to inform the largest American television audience ever of the importance and simplicity of the 2010 Census. But the 30-second advertisement did neither.
The commercial, directed by the generally funny Christopher Guest (Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) is a sloppy mix of B-list actors and disconnected dialogue with little relevancy to the U.S. Census, save for the plug of the bureau’s website at the end of a disconcerting 30 seconds.
Viewers agreed. A Wall Street Journal poll slotted the commercial as third in the “Worst Super Bowl Ads of 2010.”
Conservative talking heads spun the ad as another example of government waste and evidence that President Barack Obama does not care about the deficit. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Tweeted, “We shouldn’t be wasting 2.5 million taxpayer dollars to compete with ads for Doritos!” Later, McCain extended his criticism of the ad stating, “The census happens every 10 years. Everybody knows it happens.”
What both parties failed to realize was that a Super Bowl commercial advertising the census was a great idea and a sound economic decision — the execution was just terrible.
Despite McCain’s belief, many do not participate in the census. According to the bureau, there was only a 65 percent mail response. Latino and immigrant communities have been traditionally wary of filling out the government document because of language barriers and fear of deportation. Census officials estimate that roughly 5 percent of the Latino population alone might not have been accounted for.
Underrepresentation has huge implications for Los Angeles County, where almost half the population is Latino and more than one-third of residents are immigrants. Census findings determine representation in Congress and how much of $435 billion in federal funds a city and state will receive for social services. The money is used for hospitals, schools, job training centers and other public service projects that improve the quality of life for Angelenos.
Los Angeles lost millions of dollars in federal funds in 2000 because of incomplete census forms. Many attributed this to the unwillingness of underserviced communities to complete the document.
Taxpayers lost even more money when federal officials attempted to track down those who didn’t complete the form. For every 1 percent of the population that doesn’t mail back the census, the federal government loses $85 million in revenue, according to the bureau.
Because of this, the Census Bureau invested almost $100 million in advertising that teaches minority communities how to complete the census. Advertisements on Univision and even a character on a popular telenovela casted as a census worker are just some of the ways the bureau has attempted to reach Latinos. From this, it is evident why the bureau would invest in a Super Bowl commercial that costs $2.5 million yet has the ability to save taxpayers exponentially. But the opportunity may have slipped through its hands, because the advertisement was a flop.
A public service style message with Spanish subtitles from President Barack Obama, an esteemed celebrity or even Colts quarterback Peyton Manning could have educated a diverse audience on the importance of the census. Viewers could have been told that the census takes only five minutes, has just 10 questions (the shortest ever) and for the first time is available in both Spanish and English.
Stand up and be counted — you won’t even have to leave your couch.
Nick Brown is a freshman majoring in political science.