07 March 2010

These are Census Ads? Go Figure

The Washington Post

It seems like another goofball mockumentary from the folks who brought you "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind": Film director Payton Schlewitt wants to create "Snapshot of America," a blockbuster that will literally feature all 300 million Americans -- at once. To realize his grand vision, Schlewitt has assembled his production team, which is charged with organizing one big, big shoot.

But the 30- and 60-second commercials starring the fictional Schlewitt that have been running on TV for the past few weeks aren't promoting a movie. While it might be hard to tell, the ads are actually pushing the U.S. Census Bureau and its $14 billion once-a-decade population count.

The commercials -- directed by Christopher Guest, the writer and director of such satiric films as "Best in Show" -- have elicited some strong reactions, though probably not always the kind the Census Bureau has been hoping for.

Conservatives have blasted the bureau for the cost of its outreach efforts, which included spending $2.5 million to air one of the Schlewitt spots during the Super Bowl -- a debut rated among the worst by those who saw it. Advertising critics have been harsh, too, branding the campaign a failure for its obtuse style and confusing message. Perhaps worse, many viewers seem to have simply tuned out the whole thing.

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The commercials are done mock-documentary-style, as the nitwitty characters plan a photo session that will star "every man, woman and child in this beautiful country of ours," as the pretentious Schlewitt (played by Ed Begley Jr.) puts it. Among other things, the characters squabble over the cost of hiring a helicopter to shoot the mass gathering and whether bears could disrupt it. Schlewitt's nearsighted director of photography (Don Lake) worries about who'll mind the rest of America when everyone is posing for the picture.

Guest directed four commercials and a series of Web videos for the campaign. The cast is part of his repertory of regular film players, including Begley, Lake, Bob Balaban (here playing a bean-counting producer) and Rachael Harris (as the project's overwhelmed location scout).

The only mention of the Census Bureau in the ads comes when a production assistant mutters to a colleague that the 2010 Census is already doing what Schlewitt hopes to do with his "snapshot."

Census spokesman Steve Jost said the agency wanted to take a humorous approach in the opening phase of its awareness campaign because its surveys showed widespread cynicism about government. "Having government officials as the face of [the initial ads] probably wasn't going to work," he said. "We felt that having these familiar actors, and using humor, would be a helpful way to get the message out" that the census was starting anew.

The Guest ads, he said, appeal primarily to younger viewers, who are among the hardest to persuade to return census questionnaires. He wasn't able to say how effective the ads have been in raising awareness of the census, because no surveys have been taken.

The Census Bureau will spend $6.9 million on airtime for the Guest commercials, or less than a third of the $24.9 million it is spending on all advertising during the preliminary awareness phase of its campaign, according to DraftFCB, the bureau's ad agency. In addition to airing during the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the ads have appeared on cable and network programs such as the ABC series "Castle."

By several measures, however, the ads seem to have been met with a shrug. On YouTube, where the Census Bureau has created the Payton Schlewitt Channel, featuring all of Guest's work, some of the videos have received fewer than a hundred views since they were posted online weeks ago. The official Payton Schlewitt page on Facebook had just 722 fans as of Friday evening.

Viewers rated the first Census Bureau spot as the third-worst Super Bowl commercial, based on such factors as emotion, memorability and word-of-mouth impact, according to HCD Research, which conducted a nationwide survey immediately after the game.

Critics have further questioned whether a slightly off-kilter parody of Hollywood filmmaking by a Hollywood filmmaker was the best way to persuade millions of Americans to cooperate with the federal government's population count, which begins this month when questionnaires are mailed to more than 120 million households.

Advertising Age reviewer Bob Garfield savaged the series in a recent column. "What a weird choice to build the ongoing awareness campaign around a troupe of well-heeled, middle-aged white people who are famous mainly to well-heeled middle-aged white people," he wrote.

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Indeed, Guest has received critical praise for his film work, but his wry, almost laconic style of humor appeals to a narrow audience. His most commercially successful film, "Best in Show," a mockumentary about a dog show, has generated a modest $18.7 million in sales since its release in 2000. His most recent film, the Hollywood satire "For Your Consideration," has earned $5.5 million since its release in 2006.

"The census is about counting Americans in all their diversity," Garfield said in an interview, "and yet in terms of demographics and aesthetics, [these ads] have an Upper West Side vibe. Basically, they're aimed at Nora Ephron and no one else."

Calls to Guest's production company's offices in New York and Los Angeles were not returned.

Tim Graham, media analyst with the conservative Media Research Center in Alexandria, is among those who are skeptical about the bureau's advertising approach. "A fiscal conservative has to ask why the federal government is spending millions to promote the census with a bunch of Hollywood comedians," he said. "I'm not sure everyone is on the same wavelength [as these commercials]. If it saves the bureau money in the long run, they'll have a more persuasive case, but the risk is they look like they're being cheeky with government money."

Graham suggests that viewers may have missed some of the Census Bureau's message, due to confusion with another series of commercials starring Begley as a clueless cable-TV company executive. Those ads, for DirecTV, were also directed by Guest.

The bureau says the outreach is cost-effective because each percentage-point increase in mail-back rates ultimately saves about $85 million in follow-up costs.

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