The ads that tax you, the viewer

Government departments spend more on advertising than Kellogg's. Is this genuine public information or political propaganda? Meg Carter reports
This week advertising agencies will line up to pitch for pounds 10m of new business, all thanks to the Government's RailTrack and nuclear privatisation plans. This good news for the ad industry has a high price for taxpayers, who last year footed an pounds 81m bill for government advertising.

Many Opposition MPs believe this is too much to pay when much of this advertising is for political, rather than public, gain. "The Government is using taxpayers' money to sell itself," says Labour MP Tony Banks. He argues that the Government may have broken the Whitehall ban on using public money for party political campaigns. "With things like privatisation, they are not just selling the prospectus but their own ideology."

Estimates of the amount spent on ads by the Government vary. According to advertising auditor Register-MEAL, the Government spent pounds 81m in 1994; according to Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Malcolm Bruce, the figure is nearer pounds 250m when marketing, PR and promotional activities are taken into account.

Bruce says government departmental spending on publicity has risen steadily over the past 16 years. It began in earnest in the mid-Eighties with privatisations, such as BT and British Gas, which boosted annual government advertising expenditure to an all-time high of pounds 150m.Yet despite government claims that spending on advertising has fallen - by almost 50 per cent between 1990 and 1995, according to a report published last week - Bruce asserts that the expenditure of certain departments continues to rise.

By gleaning figures from a series of parliamentary questions and departments' annual reports, he estimates that publicity spending by the Department of Trade and Industry is up from pounds 3.9m in 1979/80 (at today's prices) to pounds 25m in 1994/5. Promotional expenditure on defence is up more than 20 per cent to pounds 21.4m. The biggest spender is the Department of Health, whose expenditure will be pounds 58m this year, almost double that of four years ago.

The Government is coy about actual figures. "Advertising expenditure on TV, press, radio and cinema will be pounds 63m this year," says Peter Buchanan, director of advertising at the Central Office of Information, the government department responsible for procuring advertising and publicity services for the public sector. No figures are available for other marketing and promotional activities, he says.

Even without these, the Government is Britain's eighth-largest advertiser, just behind Mars but ahead of Kellogg's, according to ranking by Register- MEAL.

Government departments run ad campaigns to promote their policies. Some convey specific information, such as the current pounds 20m campaign about changes to the tax assessment system, handled by ad agency Leagas Shafron Davis Ayer. Others encourage a change in attitudes, such as the Department of Transport's pounds l.5m a year drink-driving initiative, handled by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. Nearly all attract constant criticism.

Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor questions their effectiveness: "We researched a number of campaigns and found ad after ad wanting." He cites a recent Aids campaign aimed at overseas travellers. "People were encouraged to send off for an information pack. So few did that each response cost thousands of pounds."

The motive behind a campaign is another issue: there is a fine line between political advertising and promoting government policies. Mr Taylor says: "Much government departmental advertising seems to be more politically driven than practically driven." Mr Banks agrees, citing the Government's willingness to invest in advertising for its Citizen's Charter, yet its apparent reluctance to fund campaigns that address concerns such as racial harassment.

Advertising agencies preparing to pitch this summer to handle the nuclear and rail privatisations lose little sleep over this debate: "A department's decision to advertise is made long before the agency enters the fray," says one chief executive. This is endorsed by other executives. "All our work is designed to convey information relevant to the public, not to sell policies."says Sally Ford-Hutchinson, executive planning director at DMB&B.

Others involved in more controversial accounts are unwilling to comment because of conditions in their contracts. This is hardly surprising when you consider how much business is at stake: some 200 campaigns a year, employing 30 agencies at any time. The Government has 45 advertising agencies on whose services it can draw. Each is given "approved supplier" status after a thorough financial investigation by the COI.

Mr Buchanan rebuffs any question about the efficiency of this arrangement: "If 45 sounds a lot, consider the volume of work," says Mr Buchanan. The COI acts as middleman between government, "client" and advertising agency, a role designed to maximise value of money, such as through negotiating block discounts for media-owners. The roster ensures departments have the pick of top talent and get the best solution through competitive pitches."Government campaigns undergo more rigorous checks and evaluation than those for any other UK advertiser."

Still, the role and relevance of government departmental advertising remains unresolved. To some, it is a misuse of public money for political gain. Others are more pragmatic. "Ministers like to be seen to be doing something - advertising achieves this," Mr Taylor says. "Whatever the objections, I would be surprised if the same thing didn't continue under any government."