One of the paid ads that will air during Sunday’s Super Bowl will be promoting the 2010 Census, telling Americans that it’s coming soon and urging them to participate. By the time Census Day arrives April 1, the Census Bureau will be one of the nation’s biggest ad buyers. It has budgeted $140 million for the campaign.

What is known about whether these types of ads work? How will the Census Bureau measure success?

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves was asked about that topic during a recent forum on the 2010 Census at the Pew Research Center.

Researchers generally are reluctant to say that a specific trigger was the only cause of a specific behavior, because in the real world, there are many other potential factors in play.  Speaking as a social scientist on the link between advertising and Census participation, Groves said, “We can’t provide that causal link.”

However, he added, “We can make pretty good arguments,” some of them based on past experience. After the 2000 Census, an evaluation by the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) said it was “likely” that paid advertising helped raise the participation rate.

The Census Bureau instituted paid advertising in 2000; previously it had relied on free public service announcements to get its message out. Advertising began in November 1999 and ran until June 2000, including an ad during the Super Bowl. The bureau also dramatically expanded its outreach in 2000 by signing up tens of thousands of partner organizations, from local governments to ethnic associations, which worked with their constituencies to encourage participation.

Evaluation of Past Census Ads

In its evaluation of the 2000 Census, Counting Under Adversity,” the National Research Council said, “We view it as likely that both the advertising and the local outreach efforts contributed to maintaining—even improving—the mail response and return rates in 2000 compared with 1990. However, linking the advertising campaign, much less specific advertisements or community-based communications, to individual behavior—and measuring the magnitude of the effects—is typically very difficult in market research, and the census is no exception.”

The evaluation said, “In particular, there appear to have been few direct effects of advertising and outreach on mailback propensities, although there is evidence of indirect effects from favorable publicity inducing more favorable attitudes toward the census that, in turn, stimulated response. There is also evidence of positive effects of mass media or community-based communications for a few population groups, such as older people and blacks.”

The mailback rate for census forms is one concrete measure that Groves said will be important in the 2010 count. In his remarks at the Pew Research Center, Groves pointed out that every 1 percentage point increase in the return rate of mailed-out census forms saves the bureau $85 million in costs to follow up with non-responsive households.

“So if you want to just be a hard-nosed business person about this and say, is it worth it?  All we have to do is reduce this thing by 1 percentage point and it pays for itself almost,” Groves said, adding that “We’re really close to getting those kind of returns.”