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lan Levitt doesn't mince words. "This is the most closely scrutinized advertising campaign in history," says the director of the media program at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. If that's overstating the case, it's not by much. Levitt, a 30-year veteran of the civil service, is referring to the federal government's 5-year, $1 billion campaign to eradicate youth drug abuse. The ads in the campaign, which was launched two years ago, have won kudos for their sophistication and creativity. But ONDCP has also faced harsh criticism on a number of fronts.

"We've had six congressional hearings, a General Accounting Office audit, two pickets and one sit-in," Levitt laments. The political pressure to make changes in the campaign or to hire particular advertising firms is constant, he says. "On a good day, it's like having a root canal. Everybody's got a better media slogan. Someone always thinks we should be spending more on methamphetamines, or designer drugs, or crack cocaine."

The criticisms don't end there. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., has fought unsuccessfully for two years to force the office to include anti-alcohol advertising in its campaign. In January, Web magazine Salon ran an investigative article detailing an ONDCP policy that gave TV networks a break on their obligations to provide free air time to the drug control office for public service announcements if popular TV shows featured drug abuse in a negative light. Members of Congress and newspaper editorial boards across the country lambasted ONDCP for stepping on First Amendment rights. The policy was revoked.

Likewise, members of Congress became concerned when Scripps-Howard News Service reported in June that ONDCP's Web site dropped electronic "cookies" into the computers of visitors, tracking and recording their moves through the site. White House Chief of Staff John Podesta demanded that the practice cease immediately

In addition, minority-owned media outlets and advertising agencies, backed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Reps. Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, D-Mich., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have complained loudly that ONDCP isn't spending enough on them. When the drug policy office declined to purchase $5 million worth of ads on Black Entertainment Television this year, BET executives became so enraged that they declined any anti-drug ads at all. "You snubbed your nose towards us with tokenism," wrote BET executive vice president Louis Carr in a January letter to ONDCP director Barry McCaffrey.

The successes and failures of the drug control campaign mirror those faced by other federal agencies as they expand their use of paid advertising on television and radio, in print media and, increasingly, on the Internet. In its most recent study of advertising spending, Advertising Age magazine reported that the federal government placed 25th in expenditures, with a total of more than $500 million in spending. That puts Uncle Sam right behind such major companies as Sony Electronics Inc. and Viacom Inc., and ahead of corporate titans Coca-Cola Co., Intel Corp., Honda Motor Co., and Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc.

The study, which tracked 1998 spending, does not include recent increases in the government's ad budget. Indeed, in an effort to stem the decline in military recruitment, the armed services began to step up their spending on advertising last year. At the same time, the Census Bureau ran paid ads for the first time ever, spending $200 million in an effort to raise response rates to census forms. The U.S. Mint lavished more than $50 million on wide-ranging ad campaigns promoting 50 commemorative state quarters and the new golden dollar coin.

Several government campaigns have won praise for adopting the best practices of private sector advertising. Census and Mint officials already are touting the success of their ads in raising census response rates and demand for new coins. A recent U.S. Marines campaign featuring a young man being transformed into a soldier after fighting a dragon also has won accolades. But criticism of some federal ad efforts by minorities has dampened some of the enthusiasm, and long-standing allegations of wasteful spending on ads and unfair competition with the private sector have persisted.

From PSAs to Prime Time

Until recently, the government relied mostly on public service announcements to get the word out about such things as responding to the census, the dangers of drugs and the benefits of military service. Ad agencies donated the creative component and broadcast networks offered free air time.

The New York City-based Ad Council has helped put together many of those ads since World War II, when it was founded by two industry trade groups. Council ads brought to prominence pop culture icons such as Rosie the Riveter and Smokey Bear. Slogans such as the Transportation Department's "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" were popularized on Ad Council public service announcements.

PSAs remain an important part of government advertising. In January, for example, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced that Hollywood stars Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro, Julia Roberts and Will Smith had agreed to appear in PSAs promoting military service.

But PSAs run only when networks have time to donate, so they tend to air at odd hours during less-popular programming. "With the economy as good as it is and advertising space tighter and tighter, it's harder and harder for the government to get its message across in the donated media environment," says Donna Feiner, senior vice president of the Ad Council.

As a result, more agencies are turning to sophisticated paid advertising campaigns, and using PSAs only as a supplement. Advertising agency executives say the strategizing that marks the latest ad campaigns by federal agencies rivals that of any corporate ad blitz.

Large advertising agencies create the new federal ads. The creative content is evaluated in focus groups and by panels of experts. Ads aimed at middle-class Caucasian adults differ from those targeting second-generation Hispanic children, and they run on different media outlets. Hired analysts evaluate the ads' effectiveness. Many of the bureaucratic hassles that once marked the government's acquisition process have been removed to make it easier to contract for ad campaigns. Outside consultants are brought in to help evaluate the ad firms who compete for federal business. Some agencies are now offering performance-based contracts that compensate ad agencies in proportion to the success of their campaigns.

ONDCP has used several prominent outside firms in its campaign. Leading the effort are Ogilvy & Mather, a New York City-based advertising agency with more than $8 billion in annual billings, and Fleishman-Hillard, a St. Louis-based public relations firm. Mendoza Dillon & Asociados designs ads for Hispanics; Lopito, Ileana & Howie focuses on Puerto Ricans; Muse Cordero Chen and Partners and Persaud Brothers put together the African American and Asian and Pacific Islander campaigns; and G&G Advertising is charged with influencing Native Americans.

Levitt says every ONDPC ad is rigorously vetted. Focus groups and panels of psychologists who specialize in treating teenagers analyze the content. Experts in minority advertising analyze scores of ads aimed at practically every ethnic group and subgroup conceivable. The campaign recently has released a barrage of ads aimed at influencing rural Americans.

Strategizing before the ONDCP ad campaign launched took nearly a year. Now, the National Institute on Drug Abuse is charged with reviewing the campaign's effectiveness every six months. It has awarded subcontracts to Westat Inc., the Annenberg School of Communications and the National Development and Research Institute to conduct the reviews. "This is a very powerful and sophisticated campaign," Levitt says. Though actual drug abuse numbers haven't yet declined much, Levitt points to first-year figures showing the number of children who say smoking marijuana "is cool" went down 14 percent. At the same time, the number of parents who said they began talking to their children more frequently about drug abuse rose 13 percent. "This is a social marketing campaign. It isn't just getting someone to buy some product. It's about changing behavior. That's more difficult and longer term," says Levitt.

Advertising experts say other agencies should follow ONDCP's lead by spending more on ad campaigns and reorienting ads to more effectively reach target audiences.

A July study prepared by advertising consultants at the Washington firms of Sawyer, Miller & Co. and Murphy, Pintak, Gautier, Hudome criticized the military's current ads for failing to develop distinct "brand identities" for each service. The consultants said only the Marine Corps has effectively developed a unique identity. The consultants urged the military to develop separate advertisements for different demographic groups and place more advertising on local television and the Internet. In light of a 1999 study by political consultants Michael R. Murphy and Carter D. Eskew, the Army, Navy and Air Force already are adopting performance-based contracts that reward ad agencies that are successful in boosting recruitment numbers.

The military is also significantly hiking its spending, a move that would have seemed incredible in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the post-Cold War defense downsizing. In 1993, military ad budgets had declined for six straight years. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., attacked the recipients of what was left of DoD's ad budget on the floor of the Senate, railing against "big-city, Madison Avenue advertising agencies . . . who continue to get fat on the military's advertising dollars at the taxpayer's expense."

But in June the Army hired Chicago-based Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc., Cartel Creativo, a Hispanic agency, and Images USA, an African American agency, to assume a contract valued at approximately $100 million a year, nearly double what the Army spent annually on ads during much of the 1990s.

The Air Force is reviewing proposals for a new $50 million ad campaign. Last year, the Air Force ran its first paid television advertisements and hired Siegel & Gale, a New York City firm, to devise a new logo and slogan for the service. The move came after the Air Force missed its recruitment goal for the first time in its history.

In June, the Navy also began seeking new agency applications. Last year, it conducted focus groups aimed at shifting its advertising to target a new generation of recruits. It also began running a TV infomercial that focuses on the real life stories of Navy enlistees. BBDO New York is overseeing the $34.5 million Navy ad budget this year.

Lavish spending on outside advertising firms marked the government's other major campaigns as well. The Census Bureau worked with New York City-based Young & Rubicam, as well as several subcontractors charged with hitting minority targets. The Mint shelled out $40 million just for the golden dollar campaign devised by Dan Rosenthal Co., of Bethesda, Md. The ads featured a hip George Washington character touting the new coin while riding the subway, snorkeling and ordering Chinese take-out.

Missing Minorities

For many minority leaders, the issue is not how much government is spending but where the money is going. In late 1998, the Federal Communications Commission issued a study showing that minority-owned radio and television stations received lower advertising revenues than other stations with similar ratings and program formats. "It was a wake-up call," says Rep. Kilpatrick. She and Menendez immediately launched discussions with advertising industry trade groups and urged them to educate their members about the discrepancies. Ad firms acknowledged the problem, Kilpatrick said, but also fired back, charging that the government needed to examine its own practices as well.

As a result, Kilpatrick and Menendez asked the General Accounting Office to examine the government's advertising contracts last year. In the May report, GAO found that from 1994 to 1998, advertising by government agencies increased from $139 million to $368 million. During that same period, the share of dollars going to small minority-owned businesses peaked at $3 million, or 3.1 percent of total spending, in 1995, before declining to $1.2 million, or 0.3 percent of total spending, in 1998. Because the figures do not include fees paid to larger minority-owned businesses, the American Advertising Federation is currently conducting a follow-up study.

"The federal government's efforts to include minority- and women-owned advertising agencies should be a shining beacon to private industry," Kilpatrick said. "Instead, we seem to be stuck in the Dark Ages."

The Army and the ONDCP, which have the two largest government ad budgets, have received the bulk of the criticism. Activists assailed the Army earlier this year for only considering full-service agencies or consortiums with at least $350 million in billings in choosing a new contractor. The size restriction effectively eliminated any minority-owned agencies from competing without first partnering with other agencies. Such arrangements are an ongoing complaint of minority agencies, says Ron Owens, a partner with the Virginia-based firm of Laughlin Marcinio Owens. "Because it's always a subcontract, the minority agencies are always beholden to the agency of record. They never get their share of face time with the client, nor the share of billings they think they deserve," he says.

Kilpatrick says she has met with Army Secretary Louis Caldera and White House Chief of Staff Podesta to discuss the Army contract. But she has even stronger concerns about the ONDCP's efforts. "We think the whole drug media program is a farce," she says. "It's not really designed to reach those people that we feel need it, and more than that, the dollars aren't reaching those agencies in minority communities that can make a difference." Likewise, she says, minority-owned media outlets like BET are more trusted by black viewers, and should receive a large share of the spending regardless of how their ratings compare with major network television.

Levitt is unapologetic. "For us, the most important thing is delivering a message that resonates with the target audience. It's not about giving this or that group a piece of the pie." He says the ONDCP is effectively reaching minority viewers by targeting ethnic shows on network television and supplementing that with minority-owned media buys.

Still, a White House interagency working group led by Michael S. Messinger, deputy director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, is examining the issue. Messinger declined to comment about the panel's conclusions, but said he was planning to convene a conference on government advertising practices in the fall.

Same Old Story

While much of the story about government advertising is a tale of vigorous experimentation leading to fresh criticism, some agencies continue to find themselves pitted against the same old opponents and detractors. The U.S. Postal Service and Amtrak, the beleaguered government rail system, have been in the advertising business for years. The Postal Service will spend about $250 million this year to tout its express and priority mail services. Amtrak is running ads to draw attention to its planned high-speed Acela rail service on the East Coast. It also is running its normal array of TV, radio and print ads supporting existing services. Its total ad budget is about $50 million, according to Amtrak vice president of marketing Stephen W. Scott.

As long as the Postal Service has run advertisements for services that compete with those offered by private firms, it has faced bitter attacks. United Parcel Service director of public relations Tad Segal says the Postal Service's total ad budget is more than UPS and the Federal Express Co. spend combined. The spending is unfair, Segal said, because the Postal Service uses profits earned on its monopoly letter service to fund ads promoting its competitive products. Segal said the Postal Service was forced to pull one set of ads last year after Federal Express sued in federal court arguing that the ads were misleading. The ads compared the Postal Service's relatively low prices on two- and three-day mail service but failed to mention that FedEx and UPS are required by the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act to charge at least twice what the Postal Service charges on those services, Segal explained.

Likewise, Amtrak's campaign for its new high-speed Acela train service, designed by DBB Worldwide of New York, has run into fierce criticism from longtime opponents. Even Amtrak officials acknowledge that the ad campaign is somewhat strange. One of the more recent billboard ads, for example, featured a man with a trenchcoat pulled over his head with the tag line "Depart from your inhibitions." An informal Philadelphia Inquirer survey found the ad confused viewers. "Maybe he's a molester," Philadelphian Anthony Farnon speculated. Earlier ads simply said "arelaxb" or "aschmoozeb" over the Acela logo. Later versions said, "It's amazing the things that can happen between point a and point b. Life on Acela." None of those ads even hinted that the Acela was a train.

The ads were part of an ongoing teaser campaign aimed at sparking interest in the Acela before it gets rolling, according to Scott. The content is intentionally vague, he said, to spark initial interest. Later ads will fall more in line with Amtrak's standard advertising campaigns, which stress the convenience and comfort of train travel.

But critics say Amtrak began running the Acela ads far too early, even for a teaser campaign. That problem, they say, has only been compounded by the repeated delays in the Acela launch. Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak spokesman and longtime critic, is unforgiving. "These teaser campaigns primarily serve the ad agencies who want to win awards from their peers," he said. "Amtrak's ads need to convey some actual information about trains and not just some guy in a trenchcoat looking like he's about to expose himself in Times Square." Scott acknowledged that Amtrak has pulled its TV advertising and is not putting up additional billboards until closer to the high-speed service's launch.

Ads' Value

Despite the reservations of minority advertising executives, most in the advertising world-unsurprisingly-are thrilled with the government's sudden spending blitz. Robert A. Ravitz, an executive vice president at Grey Advertising in New York City, has long advised advertising agencies pursuing government contracts. He said the government has made rapid improvements in the way it hires and uses advertising agencies. "There's no question, they are using agencies more intelligently. What we in the agency world have done traditionally for companies, we're now doing for the government."

Ravitz believes the ad campaigns have already brought dividends for the Census Bureau and ONDCP and expects other agencies to be satisfied as well. Congress and the Clinton administration deserve some credit, he says, for "realizing that you have to communicate aggressively to change behavior." Of course, he concedes, communicating aggressively entails doling out millions in tax dollars to advertising firms and media outlets. And what do federal customers get in return?

"Agencies try to make the best decision for the client," Ravitz says. "There's a value in that. The question is whether that value is worth all the money."

Shawn Zeller is an assistant editor at National Journal.