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Worst in show: Census Super Bowl ad flops

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Mike Riggs
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      Mike Riggs

      Mike Riggs is a staff writer at The Daily Caller. He has written and reported for Reason magazine and reason.com, GQ, the Awl, Decibel, Culture 11, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Washington City Paper, where he served as an arts and entertainment editor.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s “Snapshot of America”  Super Bowl 44 ad has met with harsh criticism from television writers, media pundits and the Kellogg School of Management, which gave the Census ad an “F” grade — the lowest of any commercial that ran during Sunday’s game.

Television critics charge that the Census ad, which cost $2.5 million and was directed by independent filmmaker Christopher Guest (whose comedies include “Best in Show,” “For Your Consideration” and 1984′s seminal mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap”), was dry, uninformative, and culturally obscure.

“Is the U.S. Census’s biggest problem making sure that fans of ironic indie movies don’t ignore the Census?” Wrote Time magazine’s James Poniewozik in his review of the Super Bowl ads. Twitter user Steven Miller echoed the sentiment: “If you drew a Venn diagram of ‘Christopher Guest Comedy Fans’ and ‘People Unaware of the Census’ they wouldn’t overlap.”

Derek Rucker, who is the Richard M. Clewett Research Professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, wrote that the Census ad “fell flat and didn’t live up to the strategic framework” that its pre-game buzz promised, and gave the ad an “F” ranking, just below Focus on the Family’s Tim Tebow ad, which received a “D.”

USA Today’s ad meter compiled the responses of 250 adult participants in McLean, Va., and San Diego, Calif., by “electronically chart[ing] their second-by-second reactions to ads during the Super Bowl.” Among this test group, the Census spot placed 52nd out of 63 ads.

John Zirinsky, a senior analyst at the Lombardo Consulting Group, spent some time testing a potential ad for this year’s Super Bowl, using focus groups, in-depth interviews, and “just about every contemporary methodology.” His take on the Census ad is that it failed several essential tests for a successful Super Bowl ad.

“The first, most basic criteria for a successful ad is that it must be understood—on some level—by those watching. Especially in the environment of the Super Bowl, where attentions are often so diverted, it is important that people easily “get” the ad. Next, the ad must have a hook—with Super Bowl spots, these are often humorous—that makes people notice and remember the ad. Finally, what the best ads do—and this is often cited as a key justification for the $2.5 to $3 million 30 second buys—is that it generate buzz. (Think about the first GoDaddy spot from a few years back: the ads had awful production values and weren’t something you’d rewatch but it was straightforward, memorable and within a couple weeks everyone knew what GoDaddy was.)”

Zirinsky doesn’t buy the theory that “chatter” about how “awful and wasteful the spot was” will “provide some buzz for the Census.” He doesn’t think that’s what the Census had in mind, as gaining traction by annoying viewers “would be a rather perverse outcome.”

Salon’s Mike Madden defended the Census ad — which, he said, “drove a lot of Republicans completely crazy” — by citing a defensive tweet from the Census Bureau arguing that “if 1% of folks watching #SB44 change mind and mail back #2010Census form, taxpayers save $25 million in follow up costs.”

It wasn’t just conservatives who objected to the ad, as evidenced by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, who wrote, “Really, Census people, that’s as good as you can do? That should cost Hollywood a Cong. Seat,” and Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak, who ranked the Census spot as one of the five worst ads of the night. “How weird to hire all those funny character actors, then accidentally air an unfinished version of a commercial that left us all wondering what the frak we just watched,” Slezak wrote.

The ambiguous nature of the ad is a characteristic the Census Bureau has not only acknowledged, but defends as savvy marketing. “You may not watch it one time, walk away and completely understand it — unless you are a Christopher Guest fan,” the Census Bureau’s Kendall Johnson told CNN. In that same interview, David Griner of Luckie and Co. and AdFreak.com, wondered if the “upper middle-class, white audience” that normally responds well to Guest’s comedic style “didn’t understand the role of the census and would not have been active to take part in it.”