As President Obama wrangled with Congressional
Republicans and Tea Party conservatives over his proposed health-care law in
2010 and other spending initiatives, the government was outspending nearly every U.S. company on advertising.
According to the Congressional Research Service, federal agencies spent an estimated $945 million in ad contracts in 2010- an unprecedented sum.
The ads included Andy Griffith's famous endorsement of Medicare that year, yet a bulk of the money - $545 million - wasn't spent on promoting domestic programs. That spending came from the Department of Defense, which spent half of the nearly 1 billion dollar's worth of cash on ads to recruit soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
The ad buys place Uncle Same in prestigious company for the nation's biggest brander. At the top of that list sits Proctor & Gamble, which sells everything from Crest toothpaste to Folgers coffee. P&G spent just over $2.25 billion on advertising in 2010.
At $945 million in ad buys, the U.S. government takes the number 7 slot for the nation's biggest marketer - one spot above pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, best known for its little blue miracle pill: Viagra.
According to the CRS, the money was well spent. The agency in charge of research for Congress characterized the contracts as being beneficial for 'informing the public of its rights and responsibilities...inviting public comments on proposed rules, and discouraging harmful or dangerous behaviors."
Ironically, Congress has slapped the wrist of government agencies reaching out to ad agencies to polish their own image, as the General Services Administration did when reports surfaced that one of its facilities was contaminated by environmental waste. The agency took fire for hiring a private firm to rebut the claims.
It wasn't the first time Congress got feisty with government bureaucrats. In August 2010, House Republicans on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee highlighted seven federal agencies--including the Health and Human Services Administration--for engaging in 'covert propaganda' such as the use of the healthreform.gov website to promote an online petition supporting President Obama's healthcare reform package. In a separate GAO report, investigators cited the agencies conduct as 'unlawful'.
A certain amount of advertising is essential, even in government, but in the age of social media, where grassroots campaigns can reach tens of millions of people in an instant with the right messaging and people behind it, one has to wonder if it's time to look to more cost effective methods of advertising.