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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

You’re going to see and hear 2020 Census advertisements everywhere and in the most unlikely places. Like at a gas station when you are filling up the tank. At the door of the Indian center. On a billboard going to work. Even during March Madness. Seven words: “Shape your future. Start here. Census 2020.”

You might even see Apsáalooke rapper and fancy dancer Supaman in his regalia on a poster. It’ll read, "According to us, we're irreplaceable..."

The U.S. Census Bureau revealed their advertising and outreach campaign for the country yesterday at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. The campaign cost $500 million for more than 1,000 advertisements that will reach America in a variety of ways until June 28.

Even though much of America will start to see these ads right now, remote areas in Alaska have already been exposed to these ads since mid-December. The bureau wanted to make sure these ads reached the Yup’ik village of Toksook Bay where the first enumeration will take place on Jan. 21.

Kendall Johnson, executive director of the communications contract at the U.S. Census Bureau said the campaign focused on groups that were “historically undercounted.”

“The work, research and dedication that has gone into this campaign is unmatched to that of any previous censuses,” Johnson said. “Our outreach is multifaceted with a heavy focus on increasing response among groups that are historically undercounted. And it’s based on the most extensive research ever conducted to understand both what motivates people to respond to the census and what prevents them from responding.”

This awareness campaign to Alaska Native people was the first time the bureau “aired ads targeted at remote Alaska audiences for a decennial census.” Due to the limited internet and no at-home mail delivery, advertising focused on print ads, commercial signs, posters, radio, and digital.

ICYMI: Census is less than a year away; A better count is essential for Indian Country

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said last month that the bureau is “working hard with state and tribal leaders as well as community organizations to make sure that the Alaska Native population and everyone in Alaska — no matter where they live — receive information about the 2020 Census and why it is so important to be counted.”

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham at the 2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

There was the question of why remote Alaska and Toksook Bay, a hard-to-count area designated by the bureau, was only receiving a single month’s notice by advertising of the Census compared to the rest of the country’s five months.

Michael Gray, president of G&G Advertising, said they didn’t want the ads out too early and didn’t want to confuse people with the timing of the enumeration. The ads focus on “opening your door to enumerators,” he said.

G&G Advertising President Michael Gray, Blackfeet and Little Shell Chippewa, at the 2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

In addition, resources had to be considered. “The resources we had for Alaska allowed for a month of advertising prior to the enumeration next week,” said Gray, Blackfeet and Little Shell Chippewa.

However, when Gray reflects on the last two decennial censuses G&G Advertising has been part of, the one thing that improved was funding. Their 2020 budget doubled from what they had in 2010, Gray said who didn’t disclose the specific amount.

The advertising game also evolved with technology. The Montana-based advertising company had to expand in the number of ways they needed to reach Indian Country. For example, the online-scape and social media didn’t play a huge role in the 2000 and 2010 Censuses like they do now.

Gray found that in the 2010 Census, Indian Country wanted to improve their roads, schools, and infrastructure. That need from G&G’s research for the 2020 Census was the same. So the message to Indian Country in most of their ads is how the Census affects grants and programs.

2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
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They created one public service announcement and two TV spots for Indian Country, Gray said. Their big ad spender is going to be TV spots because they have to reach a big market. 

The Census Bureau released two of the three ads focused on American Indians and Alaskan Natives on YouTube.

Fun fact: Actress Irene Bedard, who voiced Disney’s "Pocahontas" and is Inupiat, Yup'ik, Inuit, Cree and Métis, does the voiceover for the “According to Us” TV spot, Gray said.

A third TV spot coming out in mid-March is called “Modern Medicine,” which has a basketball theme and sends the message of supporting the community. Navajo actor Arthur RedCloud who was in “The Revenant,” voices this basketball-themed ad.

Gray said they had to build partnerships with locals which is not as easy as it sounds. They called each tribe — yes, all 574 federally-recognized and the 60-plus state-recognized tribes.

“Every tribal office,” Gray said. “And we asked them if they would be willing to hang posters where they feel most visible in their community as part of the media buy.” This mean people would get paid to hang a poster.

There was a “good response,” he said. But there are some tribes that shrugged it off or said they are too busy.

Two Native nations in Alaska said, “You know, I really don’t know where to place it right now.” Or people said, “I don’t want to take that job offer.”

Hanging up a poster has some “leg work,” he said. The person who hangs up a poster has to hang up the poster, take a photo, fill out an affidavit, and send it to G&G Advertising along with an invoice.

MORE: Making sure the Census counts Indian Country

The places that it’s an easier job are areas that have established complete count committees.

As far as advertising in Native languages goes, scripts will be provided to radio stations through partnership programs and foundations, that can then be translated into the local Native language, Gray said.

2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

What’s the advertising plan for the Census?

The bureau breaks down the advertising campaign in three phases:

  1. Jan. 14 to March 12 is the awareness and education phase: builds immediate awareness and provides educational information about the 2020 Census
  2. May 13 to May 20 is the motivation and participation phase: inspires and motivates the public to complete the 2020 Census questionnaire online, by phone or by mail
  3. May 13 to June 28 is the reminder and nonresponse follow-up phase: continues to remind people to respond to the 2020 Census and to support census takers as they go door-to-door to count households that have not yet responded.
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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: