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Will $340 million in tote bags, snacks and tailgate parties make Americans more inclined to fill out their Census forms?

Mike Riggs Contributor

Census employees on Sunday pushed their wares — red canvas tote bags, water bottles, stickers — and worked the crowd at a gun and knife show in Abilene, Texas. A few days before that, they chilled out and answered questions at a BCS tailgate party in Pasadena. And in Phoenix last week, census employees treated visitors at the Urban Indian Center to “a DJ mixing the beats, a live band … some Indian hoop dancers,” and “delicious Indian fried bread loaded with beans, lettuce and cheese,” according to the department’s website.

Called the “Portrait of America Road Tour,” and described by the New York Times as “the most elaborate advertising and marketing effort to date from the Commerce Department,” the 12 census trucks traveling city to city are one of the Census Bureau’s big new ideas for increasing participation.

But how driving around the country and hanging out with football fans will solve the agency’s perennial problem of getting recipients to return their forms is — for the moment, anyway — a mystery. And a public relations rep associated with the Census Bureau isn’t in a sharing mood.

“There’s a media blackout right now regarding the road tour,” the press contact at Jack Morton Worldwide, Daniel Diez, said. Billing itself as a powerhouse of “experiential” marketing, Jack Morton Worldwide is the creative agency behind the road tour. The language peppering the company’s website says that its “experiential planning team starts with a deep dive” into a given brand, its “promise and its passionates.”

The road tour has garnered quite a bit of positive media attention; the other aspects of the marketing campaign, like the fact that ads for the census will run in 28 languages up from 17 in 2000, not so much.

When asked if census workers at given locations are allowed to talk about the road tour campaign, Diez responded that they’re permitted to tell journalists what “they’d tell anybody else”: why and how to return their census forms.

Though Diez doesn’t say it (and the Census Bureau has yet to return two queries left with its Public Information Office last week), there’s a lot riding on the increased number of languages, and arguably less on the road tour.

In its review of the 2000 Census’s marketing efforts (which also included a road tour) the Government Accountability Office (GAO) observed that the bureau had spent 260 percent more to market the 2000 census than its predecessor — $3.19 per household in 2000 versus $0.88 in 1990 — but fared worse in every category: The response rate was 65 percent in 1990 and 64 percent in 2000, and the return rate, which the GAO considers “a more precise indicator of public cooperation with the census than the mail response rate,” declined from 74 percent in 1990 to 72 percent in 2000.

Those numbers don’t mean the program failed. In fact, Westat, the market research company that the bureau contracted to analyze its marketing efforts after the 2000 census, had little to say about the PMP program other than “it is very hard, if not impossible, from the statistical evidence to attribute the relative success of the Census 2000 to [the Partnership and Marketing Program] or its components.”

In their conclusion, the report authors could point to only one aspect of the bureau’s marketing program that possibly worked. “It is very likely,” they wrote, “that including the message that participation is required by law on the mail-out envelope had positive effect on return rates, and should be continued.” Westat was exponentially less supportive of the other aspects of the PMP, such as the road tour and various ad campaigns. “We do not feel that the data warrants recommendations about continuing specific aspects of the PMP or not.”

Despite the conclusion of Westat’s report, the bureau is set to spend $340 million to market the 2010 census — more than double the $147 million it spent on the 2000 census. It’s a strategy that the GAO paved the way for in its 2002 report when it said of the marketing campaign, “the societal challenges the bureau encountered in 1990 and 2000 will probably be more complex in 2010, and simply staying on par with the 2000 response rate will likely require an even greater investment of bureau resources.”

Diez, at least, seems confident about the road tour and the other aspects of the Census 2010 advertising push, which Interpublic Group, Jack Morton’s parent company, will manage. Why and how the Census Bureau expects the amped-up, new-media savvy ad campaign to succeed will be a secret at least until Jan. 14, when the bureau will lift the ban on discussing its marketing plans at a press conference in Washington, D.C.