Census chief defends Super Bowl commercial

Groves says the ad will pay for itself if it prompts people to mail back their 2010 questionnaires.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves on Tuesday strongly defended a $2.5 million commercial aired during the Super Bowl this month that was criticized by Republicans and others who questioned its usefulness.

Groves told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Financial Management Subcommittee that the ad will pay off if it prompts more people to answer next month's mailed questionnaire. The bureau plans to send census questionnaires to about 140 million households next month as part of the decennial head count.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-N.C., criticized the bureau for spending $2.5 million to air a 30-second commercial during the Feb. 7 football game.

Although advertising rates for the CBS broadcast dropped slightly from 2009, they were the most expensive on television, according to analysts. But the game set a TV ratings record, averaging an audience of 106.5 million people.

Groves said if the Super Bowl ad and others in the bureau's $338 million communications campaign prompts people to mail in answers to the 10 questions, "[the ad campaign] will pay for itself."

He said the census will save $85 million for every 1 percent increase in the mail-back response -- a figure corroborated by Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser.

The census is on track to cost $14.7 billion and could cost more.

Groves said the biggest risk is a lack of response to the questionnaires, which could run up spending. Senate Federal Financial Management Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., noted that the $14.7 billion reflects an increase of $3.2 billion in just the last two years. To find as many people as possible, more than 600,000 census takers will personally knock on doors to try to track down nonresponders.

Zinser testified there are other serious issues in the way of a smooth count. Among these are computer problems that have plagued the census planning.

"And in recent weeks, Census has encountered major hardware and software issues affecting system performance that have prompted Census officials to call in executives and senior technical troubleshooters from the companies that provide hardware and software components," he said.

Similarly, Robert Goldenkoff, GAO's director of strategic issues, said the information technology systems "face performance problems and have not yet demonstrated the ability to function reliably under full operational loads."