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Dan Neil: Census aims to ensure affluent, educated white liberals are counted

A massive campaign includes five 30-second spots from mockumentary master Christopher Guest that not only ignore the poor and minorities but may further fuel right-wing anger over the tallying effort.

January 19, 2010|Dan Neil

America is in a rotten, surly mood. And still the Census Bureau has to knock on its door.

On Sunday -- during the broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards on NBC -- the bureau kicked off its 2010 campaign with the first of five 30-second spots directed by mockumentary master Christopher Guest.

This is the opening of a massive, $340-million public awareness campaign that will rain on citizens like nuclear fallout for the next few months. In addition to $133 million in paid media -- including a $2.5-million Super Bowl commercial buy -- the Census Bureau will set up shop in every corner of social media; send a census-themed mobile exhibit to monster gatherings such as the Super Bowl and Daytona 500; sponsor Greg Biffle's NASCAR team; and the whole smash will be translated into 27 languages, from Arabic to Yiddish, subcontracting 11 culturally specific boutique ad shops for the job.

All in all, this will be an effort that will have Americans talking, and they'll say: "For the love of God, send in those census forms. Make it stop."

The Census Bureau's advertising effort, helmed by agency Draftfcb in New York, has a unique mandate, said Jeff Tarakajian, the agency's executive vice president. Usually advertising has a specific audience it's trying to reach, but the census message has to reach absolutely everybody.

"Acquitting the brief of universality," said Tarakajian, "is the most fascinated marketing challenge I've ever worked on."

The bureau's big problem is noncompliance. Every 1% of the population that fails to return the forms costs the government $80 million to $90 million in door-to-door canvassing.

Millions of undocumented immigrants naturally are wary of government data gathering. Other residents are so disengaged or disenfranchised they don't even know what the census is. Right-wingers have been harping on the census for months, accusing it of being a federal overreach, an invasion of privacy, perhaps even a prelude to gun-grabbing martial law.

Some have called for a boycott of the census unless it includes a question about resident status. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) -- she of the tinfoil chapeau -- raised the specter of Japanese internment camps and intimated a census-organized roundup of undesirables.

Into this stew of ugly identity politics is thrown the Guest-directed spots. How do they play?

Curiously.

The trope -- a making-of documentary -- is familiar to Guest fans. Ed Begley Jr. plays Hollywood director Payton Schlewitt, whose Big Idea is to take a "snapshot of America," everyone, all at once. For this effort he is recruiting his production team, played by actors Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and Don Lake, who are regulars in Guest films including "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" or "For Your Consideration." While Schlewitt pitches his loony idea, two production assistants whisper to themselves that the Census Bureau is already doing a snapshot of America.

The next 30-second spot will continue the thread, with Schlewitt at a production meeting figuring out how, exactly, he's going to take his snapshot. As kid-gloved satire of Hollywood, the spots aren't bad, and obviously Guest's acting company is immensely likable and familiar.

Familiar to me, that is: a white, educated, affluent baby boomer. For people like me, Christopher Guest (Nigel in "Spinal Tap") might as well be one of the 12 Apostles. What isn't clear is how this helps the Census Bureau's effort to reach out to the poor, to ethnic minorities and to the disenfranchised, all groups that are typically undercounted in the census. I mean, Ed Begley Jr. is so white he's practically chalk.

Isn't this a lot of money to spend reaching out to a demographic that has the least to fear from government and is, therefore, the most likely to respond to the census?

These spots, says Tarakajian, are a part of the campaign's effort to reach what he called the "mass-diverse" segment -- the 84% of the population that is inclined to participate but for whatever reason might not get around to it.

"These people are important to the census just by virtue of sheer numbers," Tarakajian said. While there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all messaging, "You've got to start with the base."

More than half the $133-million media buy will be spent trying to reach the remaining 16% of the population, Tarakajian notes. "They're harder to count."

Fair enough. Still, I wonder about the embedded cultural cues of the Guest spots -- specifically the use of Ed Begley Jr., one of America's most recognizable liberal environmentalists and loudest proponents of electric cars. Begley is beloved in the blue states, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's the sort of public figure that makes Arkansans shoot at their television.

There is also the format of smarter-than-thou satire focused inwardly, which is to say, toward Hollywood. From what I know of entertainment and cultural conservatism -- hey, I've been to Branson -- people in the Deep South might find these ads smug and deeply irritating.

It seems to me a slight case of, if not tone deafness, tinnitus. Anybody with an AM radio knows the census is a lightning rod for right-wing scorn. By putting Begley and Guest's band of Left Coast wiseacres out in front of the census effort, the bureau seems to be taunting, practically inviting Tea Party blow-back.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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