GAO: U.S. Spent $1.6 Billion on Ads, PR
Critics call the administration's expenses “unprecedented” and “disturbing”
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/19/2006 7:00:00 PM
A new study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Bush administration has spent $1.6 billion on advertising and public relations since 2003, for items ranging from video news releases to embroidered bowling bags.
The study was requested in the wake of scandal involving Armstrong Williams, the conservative broadcaster paid by the administration to promote its No Child Left Behind education policy.
It was released by a California-heavy group of Democrats, including Reps. Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi (both California). The study was limited to seven of 15 cabinet agencies and did not include subcontractors, so the figure is likely higher.
Agencies for which data was collected were the departments of Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Treasury and Veterans Affairs. GAO says they accounted for nearly all of the PR and ad dollars for 2003; its study covered 2003 through second quarter 2005.
Ad agencies got the lion's share, about $1.4 billion, with PR firms garnering $197 million and media companies and individuals $15 million.
Some of the findings:
There were 14 contracts awarded for video news releases worth a total $1.4 million.
The Air Force spent $179 million for recruitment advertising; $10,152 for Coke-themed giveaways, including portable radios, T-shirts, hats, and coolers; and $35,000 for golf-related items, such as embroidered golf towels and tees; and $288 to embroider logos on bowling bags.
Campaigns pushed the administration's view of the war on terror and warned of the dangers of importing prescription drugs from outside the country.
The report did not say how much similar agencies in other administrations have paid for advertising and promotion over comparable periods, although Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the administration's strongest critics on the issue and ranking member of the Education Committee, called the extent of the Bush administration's propaganda “unprecedented and disturbing.”
The Democrats don't actually have a direct comparison to the study, which was self-reported data from seven of 15 cabinet level agencies over 2½ years. But an earlier study by the minority staff of the Government Reform Committee of just PR expenditures by the government found that they had risen from $37 million in 2001 to $88 million in 2004.
The top ad-agency recipients of the largess, according to the GAO study: Leo Burnett, $536 million; Campbell-Ewald, $194 million; GSD&M, $179 million; J Walter Thompson, $148 million; Frankel & Co., $133 million; and Ketchum Communications, $78 million.
The Defense Department spent the most, $1.1 billion. Health and Human Services was next at more than $300 million; followed by Treasury at $152 million and Homeland Security at $24 million.
“The government is spending over a billion dollars per year on PR and advertising,” said Waxman in a statement. “Careful oversight of this spending is essential given the track record of the Bush administration, which has used taxpayer dollars to fund covert propaganda within the United States.”
“The fact is that, after all the spin, the American people are stuck with high prescription-drug prices and high college costs,” said Miller in calling for tighter controls on PR. “I would hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle would agree that changes need to be made to rein in the president's propaganda machine.”
Craig Aaron, communications director of media-reform group Free Press, reacted to the report: “We need a full accounting of the Bush administration's spending on advertising, PR and fake news. It's time for Congress to reclaim its constitutional role as a counterweight to the executive branch and permanently cut off funding for covert propaganda. We must ensure that taxpayer money isn't being spent by the White House to secretly manipulate the American public.”
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