Government advertising

6th Apr 2010

Ask most people a question about government  advertising campaigns and chances are the word 'spin' will be one of the first to crop up in their replies.

But when the Government runs an advertising campaign, is the purpose simply to promote the work of the party in power?

This was the suggestion made by The Sun, in an article published last month. Using figures from the Conservative party, the paper warned that airwaves were being "flooded with plugs" for the Government.

While the story by the paper's political editor, Tom Newton-Dunn, admitted that some of the campaigns were "genuine health awareness drives" the report stated that "many more are highly political".

The figures

Figures for government spending on advertising will not be published until after the election. However using figures from the advertising research company Nielsen, the Conservatives estimated the 2009 figure to be £223 million, while spending in January 2010 of £30 million broke all previous monthly records for spending. The Daily Telegraph has now reported the Tories' estimates for February, again breaking records at £35 million.

Is the Sun right to claim that the majority of adverts are politicised government promos?

As stated above, the £223 million figure comes from analysis by the Nielsen research company.  They hold estimates for the cost of every campaign by the Central Office of Information and the headline figure is based on the sum total of these campaigns.

If this figure is likely to be accurate, to what extent does it include material that The Sun described as highly political?

Defining when a government advert simply provides information, or serves to promote the governing party is a highly subjective issue. Full Fact contacted a range of academics to find a consensus as to what could be considered political advertising. Cardiff University's Professor of Journalism, Bob Franklin, who teaches classes on state communications, told us:

"It is clearly the case that not every example of government expenditure here results in spin but it is the case that every example illustrates government concern to control information about its activities and is closely considered for this aspect of effect."

Just spin?

To get a working definition of what would constitute an overly political campaign by a Whitehall department, Full Fact turned to the Cabinet Office guidelines for Whitehall advertising during the 2005 general election. 

In essence the guidelines call for a halt in most advertising during the election period. The rules state that "material produced with complete impartiality which would be accepted as objective in ordinary times may excite criticism during an election period when feelings are running high".

However the guidance notes that there could be possible exceptions in the areas of recruitment, health and safety. A Cabinet Office spokesman confirmed while adverts would be taken on a case by case basis, examples from these areas, such as armed forces recruitment, were unlikely to be cancelled.

Taking the figures provided by the Conservative, Full Fact calculated that at least £17 million of government advertising was spent on recruitment.

The two other campaign areas considered potentially safe during an election period are health and safety, includes campaigns such as swine flu, blood donation, anti-binge drinking and fire safety campaigns.

Spending on adverts related to public health came in at over £50 million, and a further £7.5 million was spent on safety adverts.

Such figures demonstrate how much spending, in this case over £70 million, is dedicated to some of the least contentious aspects of the work of government. But what about the other areas of spending?

Area

Approximate spending (£m)

Tax/Benefits/Pensions

17.4

Crime/Policing/Terrorism

6.4

Training/Skills/Education

9.4

Employment

1.6

Environment

10.2

Tourism

3.1

Business help

1.7

Children's Services

1.8

General Departmental/Quango Spending

43.3

Other

 53.6


Within each of these areas there is spending which seems more open to question. For instance, while the Home Office spent £1.3 million on an anti-burglary campaign a further  £2.4 million was spent on the controversial policing pledge adverts.

Likewise, advertising on job centres during the recession may seem reasonable, but the Department for Work and Pensions also spent over £400,000 promoting the New Deal programme and £35,000 promoting the Government's 'Backing Young Britain' campaign.

Full Fact spoke to the Central Office of Information, who insisted that rules were in place to prevent spin creeping into government advertising.

"Nothing we do can be party political, there are strict propriety guidelines that run throughout government," a spokeswoman said.

The guidelines in question are the Communications Act 2003, the Advertising Standards Code, and the aforementioned Cabinet Office propriety guidelines, which come into force during the election. They are also subject to the civil service code which insists on impartiality.

But are such guidelines strong enough? There is a case for arguing that they are given that in recent weeks, two of the Government's more contentious campaigns, on climate change and the policing pledge, have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Conclusion

Given the code which is in place and some of the examples quoted above, it is difficult to completely subscribe completely to the Sun's reporting of the Government's spending on advertising.

Professor Media and Communications at LSE, Dr Damian Tambini, raised concerns with Full Fact about the way the Sun has reported the figures.

"To say that 'more campaigns are highly political' is at best unfounded and at worst meaningless.

"More than what? More than the health awareness campaigns? By what measure? It would be interesting to know if there is a factual basis for that claim, or if it is just the product of a bit of lazy editing," he told us.

He added: "The story is well worth doing, and may well have 'legs' but what the Sun has done fails to convince, because ultimately it is an exercise in the practice it is criticising: party political propaganda".

The rising level of government spending may raise concerns given the size of the budget deficit. Yet Professor Gerard Hastings, Director of the Institute for Social Marketing, cautioned against automatically assuming government advertising was a bad thing.

"There's a kind of assumption in the question that government spending to try and encourage people to trust it is a bad thing," he said.

He added: "There's certainly that danger that the Government hijacks particular issues and uses campaigning on them to campaign about the party themselves, but it is also quite a difficult line. 

"I would see no harm and some benefit in governments putting effort into boosting the standing of the NHS."

Clearly there is a debate to be had about the Government's spending on advertising as all parties move to cut spending, but the scrutiny of the Sun's claim shows that the debate will require an appreciation the government advertising is by no means always self-promotion.

By Patrick Casey