ONLY YOU Can Decide


By: Jordon Weinmeier


After our discussion last week, and without naming any names, I decided to write about advertising’s role in government. To better understand this, we must first define what it means, and draw the distinction between advertising and public service announcements. The book’s definition of advertising is “a paid, mass-mediated attempt to persuade” whereas a public service announcement (PSA) is very similar, but not paid for. This distinction is important, because a lot of the controversy surrounding government’s use of advertising, is based on the fact that taxpayer money is used to pay for campaigns. Similar to the one seen below:

The amount of money that is spent by the government to promote various causes is hard to quantify, partly because there is no formal definition, nor committee that controls or reports government-wide advertising. It is mostly left to different departments to decide how and where to spend their money. The five departments that spent the most on advertising are in fiscal year 2011 are:

  • the Department of Defense $473.6 million
  • the Department of Health and Human Services $87.6 million
  • the Department of the Treasury $50.6 million
  • the Department of Transportation $36.7 million
  • the Department of Homeland Security $34.7 million

How much do you agree with the placement of the following advertisement?

ImageYour money is being used to fund a nascar race team. (Update: US Army stopped funding race team this year)

Another big issue that I want to address is the actual content that is being advertised. This can also be very controversial because of the many different views people have on certain topics. One example that comes to mind is the campaign against marijuana. Even as several states move to legalize it, the federal government is still trying to persuade in favor of the opposite view, as seen by this ad:

I want to end by posing a few questions about advertising’s role in government. Some things to consider as we move towards a more digital age where advertisers know more and more about who we are and what we’re thinking. Who decides what the government should be trying to persuade the masses on? What constitutes a public good? How much resources should be devoted towards advertising? Is there a line that needs to be drawn between information sharing and malignant propaganda? Where do you draw that line?


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