- Washington Guardian - Friday, November 16, 2012

The government has spent more than $16 billion over the last decade on outside advertising, marketing and public relations contractors, feeding a cottage industry of inside-the-Beltway and Madison Avenue firms that help federal agencies burnish their images and tailor their messages, an investigation by theWashington Guardian and Northwestern University’s Medill News Service has found.

Many of the contracts are awarded without full competition, and some of the funding goes to foreign contractors whose names the government refuses to disclose, the review of federal spending records from fiscal years 2002 through 2012 found.

The money is above and beyond the millions of dollars a year that agencies already spend on their fulltime press, communications and media operations, and it has gone to pay for projects as varied as NASCAR and sports sponsorships, recruitment efforts for the military services, veterans benefits, welfare aid, and programs that help multi-billion dollar multinational corporations pitch their products to overseas customers, the records show.

Those on the front lines of the work say federal agencies’ reliance on advertising, PR and media firms is just one of the many signs of how much the era of instant 24/7 Internet and TV access has transformed the government’s job of communicating to Americans. 

A few decades ago, the government’s main advertising business focused on pitching public service announcements, like the U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey the Bear fire prevention commercials or a 1960s-era Labor Department commercial featuring the comic book heroes Batman and Bat Girl talking about equal wages for women.

Today, consultants are brought in for communication projects as targeted as recruiting translators and linguists for national security agencies and as urgent as launching advertising campaigns like the one the Obama administrationrushed onto airwaves in Pakistan in September, featuring the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologizing for an Internet video that originated in the United States and offended Muslims worldwide. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” the president was quoted as saying in an ad designed to lower tensions in Islamic countries.

Some advertising campaigns identified by the Washington Guardian and Medill News Service, however, are likely to leave taxpayers and policymakers who advocate a smaller government scratching their heads. For instance:

  • The Veterans Affairs Department has spent $25 million on advertising since 2011 to encourage more retired troops to take advantage of its mental health services, luring new customers into a system that is suffering historic backlogs for the people it already tries to serve. The Washington Guardianreported earlier this month that the backlog of benefits cases has nearly doubled in the last two years alone. VA officials said they did not have any statistics to show how effective the campaign “Make the Connection” has been in getting vets suffering from mental illness to go to a Web site to enroll. But a key veterans’ mental health expert, Dr. Tom Berger, who serves on one of the VA’s oversight committees, has criticized the ad campaign, saying it lacks targeting and fails to engage those vets who are older and have limited knowledge of using technology. 
  • The Labor Department spent a half-million dollars on a public relations firm to advertise the benefits of a clean energy retraining program, which the Washington Guardian reported in September missed— by far — its goals of retraining workers.
  • The Agriculture Department spent millions since 2008 on ads designed to encourage more Americans to enroll for food stamps — many in Spanish and targeted at Hispanics — at a time when the government safety net program already has record expenditures. The department ended the ads shortly before the election, after conservatives complained.

Federal agencies insist the advertising and marketing help is essential to their missions, saying the money has gone to recruit workers, sell American products overseas, advertise services and inform and educate the public about dangers as well as opportunities and assistance.  

“We really want to represent America’s farmers and ranchers, and those are raw commodities.  They demonstrate a full array of the types of food that are produced here in the United States,” explained Matt Herrick, a spokesman at the U.S. Agriculture Department that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help American companies market their agriproducts overseas.

Nonetheless, the entire line of spending is likely to draw scrutiny as congressional budget-cutters look for savings to reduce massive federal deficits.

“At a time when we’re facing a $16 trillion debt and the impending bankruptcy of safety-net programs like Medicare and Social Security, spending $16 billion on advertising consultants raises troubling questions,” says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is retiring at the end of 2016 but spent years in Congress seeking elusive deals to cut spending. “Congress has an obligation to find out who made these decisions, and for what purpose, and then hold agencies accountable for any misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The Washington Guardian and Medill News Service reviewed a decade’s worth of federal spending records to provide the first-ever accounting of how much money the government spent hiring contractors to create or place ads, tailor messages, handle public relations or craft communication strategies. The computer analysis found that federal agencies awarded more than 190,000 contracts and spent more than $16.3 billion since 2002 on the various efforts — an average of about $1.5 billion annually. (Click here to see the methodology.)

That total, however, does not include the amounts spent each year by the various military services on the hundreds of promotional flyovers they stage with aircraft to wow audiences at sporting events. The Pentagon doesn’t know how much is spent on those efforts, because it doesn’t track the costs. 

The biggest spenders among the agencies were the Pentagon, and the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services.  The spending on the ads and image-making appears to have peaked under President George W. Bush in 2008 at nearly $2 billion, and has fallen under President Barack Obama to $1.3 billion in 2011, the last year with full spending records available.

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