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Friday, February 5, 2010 - 3:18pm

Georgia Senator Questions Super Bowl Ad

Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson is questioning plans for an advertising campaign by the U.S. Census Bureau. The $133 million campaign includes a 30-second television ad costing about $2.5 million that will run during the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Isakson says he's concerned that a federal agency would spend so much money on advertising during an economic crisis that includes a massive federal deficit.

The bureau, though, says its campaign -- which includes celebrities like Ed Begley, Jr. -- will likely prompt people to mail in census forms, saving millions of dollars by cutting down on the number of field workers who would otherwise go door to door collecting demographic data. Census officials say they estimate cost savings at $85 million for each percentage point increase in the number of forms mailed back.

The ads will hit a huge audience; last year's Super Bowl drew in nearly 100 million viewers. But the venue is expensive, with 30-second commercials costing up to $3 million each. The ads, and their costs, are as legendary as the game itself.

An accurate count in the Census is significant since federal monies for education, health care, transportation, social services and other programs are often based on population numbers.

"The real beneficiaries of that are state and local communities which, if they are involved in getting a full count, will then stand to gain literally billions of dollars collectively over the next decade," says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

In addition, district lines for elected office are based on the data, potentially bringing changes in the balance of power in Congress and the electoral college each decade. This time, southeastern and western states, with the exception of Louisiana and California, stand to gain seats in Congress. States in the Northeast and the Midwest will lose. That could mean an increase in the number of conservative representatives in the U.S. House.

Still, Isakson, a member of the U.S. House Commerce Committee that oversees the bureau, says he's not yet convinced of the ad's benefits and cost savings. He wants officials there to prove -- on paper -- that a similar advertising campaign last decade saved money.

During the 2000 census, meanwhile, Georgia officials spent about $2.7 million in state funds -- about the same cost as this year's Super Bowl ad -- on television and radio advertising, telemarketing and other programs designed to ensure census participation in the state.

There is no money for marketing in the state budget this year, however, likely due to the bad economy. State officials are focusing on getting the word out about the census through public service announcements on radio stations and grassroots efforts with local groups, known as Complete Count committees.

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