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GAO: U.S. Spent $1.6 Billion on Ads, PR

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

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

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

“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.”