Spin doctors, market researchers and advertising gurus are cleaning up from taxpayer-funded government advertising, reaping tens of millions of dollars before an ad even appears on televisions or in newspapers.
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Dr Karl to donate payment for IGR ads
After a social media backlash, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki says he will give away any money he earns from appearing in ads for the Government's Intergenerational Report.
In some cases, three-quarters of the total bill for "public information campaigns" has gone towards the creative process.
But Labor's attempt to capitalise on the Turnbull government's latest wave of big-budget advertising has taken a hit after it was revealed the party spent more on ads during its time in power.
Both major parties have splashed nearly $2 billion on taxpayer-funded blitzes over the past decade.
While the Coalition is spending less, the proportion going towards focus groups, PR firms and boutique advertising agencies is climbing, rising to 30 per cent last financial year, up from 25 per cent.
In one case, the government spent nearly $700,000 on research and creative design to promote the Health Star Rating System – but just $300,000 on placing the actual ads.
One-fifth of the $28 million spent on the controversial "Dr Karl" Intergenerational Report ads went to boutique Sydney firm 303Lowe. The campaign became a laughing stock after the celebrity scientist disassociated himself from the ads even as they were beaming into living rooms across the country.
And of the $8 million spent on a campaign to make people aware of the impending analogue TV switch-off, more than half went to private consultants and public relations firms.
Advertising is back in the spotlight after the government announced it would spend $46 million on campaigns to sell its innovation infrastructure agendas. It is also planning a $18 million childcare campaign, and has launched a $9 million anti-ice blitz and $10 million campaign to spruik newly signed free-trade agreements.
Under a press release titled "There's never been a more exciting time to work in advertising" – a play on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's statement that "there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian" – Labor senator Kim Carr said Mr Turnbull and predecessor Tony Abbott had created a "taxpayer-funded advertising boom".
But Department of Finance documents show Labor spent more on advertising each year than the Coalition.
Senator Carr said analysing the spending of Labor and the Coalition was like "comparing apples with oranges" and accused the government of using market research for political advantage.
"That so-called creative work is designed to ascertain what the public mood is at that time. It's a direct subsidy to the political parties, that's opinion-poll research," he said.
"I'm the last to suggest we didn't advertise; all governments have public advertising campaigns [but] there are legitimate and illegitimate ones and this government is not shy about the misuse of public resources for political advantage."
Professor Jim Macnamara, an expert in government advertising at the University of Technology Sydney, said there was a benefit to spending more money on research.
"That's a good thing, as rigorous evaluation eliminates waste. Also, there are shifts in how people use media. So more money is going towards the web, social media and PR activities such as direct community engagement. That is simply smart."
Transparency is important but governments "have a responsibility to fully inform citizens about policies and services, and their rights and entitlements", he said.
Recent, current or upcoming campaigns:
Anti-ice ads: $9 million
Free trade agreements ads: $10 million
Infrastructure plans ads: $10 million
Science and innovation ads: $28 million
Childcare reform ads: $18 million
Higher education reform ads: $9 million
Intergenerational Report ads: $28 million
Spending on media placement v spending on creative/research process:
2014/15: $107.1m v $46.5m
2013/14: $106.5m v $35.0m
2012/13: $138.9m v $59.4m
2011/12: $139.7m v $63.6m
2010/11: $116.9m v $47.8m
2009/10: $114.7m v $39.7m
2008/09: $130.1m v $38.2m