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What's so funny about the census?

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
  • The U.S. Census Bureau is trying to spread the word through a series of Christopher Guest-directed ads
  • Commercials are part of a $133 million media campaign to get adults to be counted
  • The ads use actors from some of Guest's movies in a subtle, quirky attempt to inform the public
  • Blogger questions whether such ads will be effective, as many viewers might not get the humor

(CNN) -- Christopher Guest makes wry, drily amusing films. His improvisational movies, such as "Best in Show," "For Your Consideration" and "A Mighty Wind," have their fans, but -- as box office receipts indicate -- they're not for everybody.

But that hasn't stopped the United States Census Bureau from using a series of Guest-directed commercials to promote the 2010 census.

"They are different, they are interesting and the more you watch them the funnier they get," said Kendall Johnson, supervisory program analyst for the U.S. Census Bureau. "You may not watch it one time, walk away and completely understand it -- unless you are a Christopher Guest fan."

The concept is simple -- actor Ed Begley Jr. stars as a major Hollywood director who wants to do a portrait of the entire U.S. population as part of "a snapshot of America."

Several of the actors who usually show up as part of Guest's repertory group, including Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban, also appear. There are five commercials overall, and fans are hoping they spread virally.

But if Guest's ads are not as grimly serious as commercials from census campaigns in 1990 and 2000, the Census Bureau surely is. Johnson said the roughly $133 million media effort is part of a $333 million push which includes advertising, public relations, recruitment, census in school, a road tour and the creation and distribution of material, all in service to spreading the word to as many Americans as possible.

One of the ads -- the second in the series -- aired during Sunday's Super Bowl at an estimated price of $2.5 million, which prompted a controversy of its own. Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain recently tweeted on his Twitter account that while the census is important, the government "shouldn't be wasting $2.5 million taxpayer dollars to compete with ads for Doritos."

But for some commentators, there's a bigger issue: How does the Census Bureau expect to reach a broad audience with Guest's sardonic commercials?

"It's a strange time to do a viral campaign, especially one that's obviously got quite a bit of star power behind it, when the upper middle-class, white audience is going to be the usual core group that mostly finds the Christopher Guest mockumentary style really hilarious and really compelling," said David Griner, social media strategist for Luckie and Co. and a blogger/contributing editor for "You have to wonder if that's a group that didn't understand the role of the census and would not have been active to take part in it."

But Gary Resch, group creative director for Draftfcb -- which developed the commercials -- disagrees. He said the ads are targeting the "mass diverse audience" or anyone who consumes English-speaking media.

"I think it's a little bit presumptuous to think that only educated or sophisticated people get this type of comedy," Resch said. "This concept was developed before Christopher Guest came on board." (Guest was not available for interviews.)

The Census Bureau's Johnson said focus groups were held which revealed that audiences were keen on subtle humor in census ads because an effort to count every single person in the United States didn't strike them as overtly funny.

She added that the Guest commercials are a small portion of the ad campaign, which include PSAs and other vehicles produced in 28 languages. There will be several ads aimed at explaining the logistics of the census as well as targeting informing traditionally under-represented groups like minorities, she said.

Seth Stevenson, who writes the "Ad Report Card" column for Slate, said the government faces the same challenges of any business or entity that is trying to leave a lasting impression on the buyer or public.

"It's a balance in that if you hammer it home, people get bored and it doesn't grab their attention," Stevenson said. "But if you get too cute and play hide-and-seek with what you are talking about, then sometimes people don't know what you are talking about."

Stevenson said the Census Bureau might have done better engaging several different comedy directors with different styles that may have appealed to a broader audience.

Still, he said, the Guest commercials are quirky enough that they may stay with the viewer.

"Even if it's not your style of humor and the ad doesn't make you laugh, it's going to make you aware that the census is coming because it doesn't blend in to the background," Stevenson said. "As opposed to a dull ad with some text and an announcer saying 'The census is coming.' "

But Griner said that the Guest ads may be too subtle.

"I don't know the strategic positioning behind everything, but if their goal was to explain the census to people then I don't know if mockumentary format works," he said. "By creating a faux campaign with fictional characters I think you risk muddying the waters on something that only comes around every decade. It's already confusing enough as is."