Report: Government Agencies Spent $16B On Outside Ads, PR Over Last Decade

Federal agencies sometimes spent money on what appear to be contradictory messages.

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Federal agencies have spent more than $16 billion on outside advertising and public relations over the last decade, a new report from government watchdog news site the Washington Guardian and Northwestern University's Medill News Service shows. That number excludes what is spent on in-house communications by government employees, About a third of the time the agencies didn't look for the best price, the report says.

Amid ongoing negotiations about the debt in Washington, the Guardian and Medill also found the government sometimes spends ad money on what appears to be differing goals.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has spent millions promoting healthy living, including $9 million for a multimedia campaign on healthy shopping and dining in 2010.

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The Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, has promoted another message. The USDA gave $1.3 million in 2012 to the National Confectioners Association to promote its sugary sweets abroad, and $250,000 to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States to promote whiskey and other alcohols.

"If Michelle has an ad on eating healthy, I doubt she's pitching popcorn or candy," Guardian founder and editor John Solomon tells Whispers, in a reference to the first lady and her healthy living campaign. "But the ad world can create messages that can be different to different audiences. So it's 'eat healthy' here in America, but eat more unhealthily overseas — because it drives the products of our U.S. manufacturers."

The research also revealed some bizarre advertising expenditures, including $8.4 million spent by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Patrol agency to put ads on racing cars competing in NASCAR. The ads were intended to help the Border Patrol recruit more agents, aimed at a key demographic of young male adults. But the Guardian and Medill point out the ads showed only a logo, with no mention of recruitment.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at