We begin with the story of federal agencies growing so large and so rich they’ve somehow had the time and taxpayer money for all kinds of initiatives to make themselves look good. Or to convince us they’re doing a great job. In other words, they’re spinning us with our own money. We set out to find— how much.
This isn’t a movie preview.
Video: “Welcome to fairy tale acres a land where witches, wolves and giants lurk"
It’s a government video, part of a Department of Transportation campaign to urge you to “call before you dig.”
The Transportation Security Administration or TSA also uses your tax money to produce cool videos. This series highlights odd items like shoes confiscated from travelers.
TSA ad: fashion statement, what size are these?
The feds spending tax money on videos that don’t seem to be absolute necessities is nothing new.
IRS ad: Fascinating. Can't you do something?
In 2010, the IRS got caught using tax dollars to make training videos starring IRS employees. This one spoofed Star Trek.
Character: “Back in Russia, I dreamed someday I'd be rich and famous.”
Character: "Me too! That's why I became a public servant.”
A separate skit was based on "Gilligan's Island.”
Those two videos alone reportedly cost around $60,000 dollars. Just a sliver of the $4 million tax dollars spent in one year by the IRS studio that produced them.
Character: Hey everybody! I saw a ship! No really I saw a ship!
We wanted to know just how much of your tax money the feds are spending on things like video production, TV studios and outside advertising. And how much of it is non-essential PR or self-promotion— rather than critical services. It’s a massive question.
Andy Griffith: Nineteen sixty-five!
When it comes to commercials, HHS or Health and Human Services is among the biggest spenders. The agency once shelled out $700,000 for Medicare ads starring Andy Griffith.
Andy Griffith: With the new health care law, more good things are coming
Republicans called the ads misleading.
Andy Griffith: I think you're going to like it.
Studio host: Good morning! And thank you for joining us.
On top of advertising, federal agencies have spent tens of million of tax dollars building and equipping their own individual state of the art TV studios.
The FDA calls its studio "a hidden gem -- one of the largest and best-equipped â€|in the entire federal government.” “Capable of handling large studio audiences” and producing everything from animated videos and mini-documentaries to this recent video
It warns people not to eat inedible glitter on cakes.
Over at the FBI, they produce radio spots that mimic news reports
FBI host: With FBI This Week, I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau.
The segments heavily promote the FBI.
FBI host: Bowdich says the FBI must be in lockstep with America’s universities and research labs, the tech industry, companies, and others ...
And still more of your tax money is spent on glowing promotional profiles of who else but—federal employees.
Woman: There are many times when I am out in wetlands
Man: The thing that keeps me going is knowing that we can make a difference.
HHS host: Why do you love working at HHS?
HHS employee: I love working at HHS because you get to serve the public and there opportunities to learn and grow in your career.
Another big expense is the salaries for all the federal workers doing PR work.
One analysis found the EPA alone spending $20 million dollars a year on PR staff— plus $1.5 million in bonuses. More than 100 of those employees earning healthy, six figure salaries.
The most recent attempt to add it all up— and find out whether it’s tax money well spent— is a study by Government Accountability Office.
Heather Krause: It can be difficult to identify the return on investment for some of these public relations investments that are being made.
GAO’s Heather Krause says too often the feds can’t or won’t track the bang they’re getting for the taxpayer buck. Take the Department of Health and Human Services or HHS.
Lebron James: Hi, I’m Lebron James.
The agency dug deep— into your pockets—and dropped tens of millions of tax dollars alone advertising Obamacare from 2010 to 2014.
Lebron James: Sign up now. You never know when you might take a hit.
The Obamacare ad budget doubled in 2016 — from $50 million to $100 million dollars — but amazingly, enrollment FELL by 400,000 people. That means taxpayers spent roughly $125 dollars losing each customer.
Sharyl: Who are the biggest spenders, in terms of advertising and PR contracts?
Krause: In terms of the agencies, really when we looked at the billion dollars that you mentioned a year, about 60% of that is the Department of Defense.
Sharyl: We went to the Department of the Defense to find out where all that money goes.
Kim Joyner: Alright so this is the control room for the press briefing room.
There’s a state of the art studio and a cool video wall. But most of the money...
US Army ad: We’re a versatile force.
... is spent under the category of recruiting.
Sharyl: Do you feel like with all that money you're kind of awash in funds sometimes?
Joiner: I wish. No, that's not the case.
Kim Joiner is a public affairs officer at the Pentagon.
Sharyl: The Pentagon, the military is the largest single chunk of that money. Why is that the case?
Joiner: Well, it's important in an all volunteer force that we're able to convince folks that there's a reason that we need them to serve.
Army ad: Today’s competition is fierce.
But there are questions about the return on the military’s recruiting dollars.
The biggest boondoggle was $9 million tax dollars spent sponsoring a car on the National Hot Rod Association Tour. It netted a grand total of 51 recruits. That works out to more than $176-thousand dollars per signup. The sponsorship ended last July.
Stephanie Miller: This is where you’d traditionally see all of our big press events, major announcements
Sharyl: Stephanie Miller oversees policies on military recruitment.
Sharyl: Can you give a sense of how much money is spent on these efforts?
Miller: Yes. So, each year the department spends approximately several hundred million a year on advertising and marketing efforts.
How can taxpayers be sure or feel like they're getting great bang for the buck? Because a lot of money goes into this.
Miller: We are very cognizant of making the best use of every taxpayer dollar that we receive.
Department of Defense ad: This doesn’t make sense it does to me, mom.
Miller says the military’s newest focus is an ad campaign aimed at parents.
Department of Defense ad: But why this way? Because I want to take on the world’s toughest hackers. Aren’t there other jobs?
But she says reaching the right audience comes with a cost.
Ad: So ma, what do you think?
Miller: Our previous campaign was approximately ten million in media advertising direct purchased air time. Our more recent campaign is around 38 million. I think that that does showcase, again, it is more expensive each year to be able to ensure that your content is well placed and that it's integrated across multiple different platforms.
As for the totals: the GAO estimates that overall, about 4,800 PR agents work inside the federal government. Their salaries add up to about $430 million dollars a year.
And over the past decade, about $15 billion tax dollars or $1.5 billion dollars a year was spent on ads and PR, including all those videos. In fairness, when excesses have been exposed, officials have promised to fix them. But because there’s no independent agency tracking all of it, it’s also fair to suspect we haven’t seen the last of Gilligan.
All that spending on government PR while our federal government is $22 trillion dollars in debtand growing.