Expenditure on Government Ads: An Act of Futile Publicity

Various ads splashed in broadsheets is nothing but sheer waste of public exchequer’s money, writes Shailaja Chandra.

3 min read
Expenditure on govt ads is nothing but a waste of public money. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)

We in India are inured to seeing sundry government factotums embellish official advertisements in our newspapers. In Western democracies, to have a politician’s face embedded in an official advertisement would be repugnant to the public. Americans are not confronted with government advertisements showcasing Obama’s face.

In our feudal society, the beaming photo of a minister is not just expected but seen as essential to ministerial functioning. Fortunately, we are now going to have an ombudsman to regulate government advertising. Soon those huge government advertisements adorned by politicians’ faces, covertly a means of garnering personal publicity at the taxpayers’ cost, may abate.

Almost every day the national dailies carry full page advertisements and three page supplements extolling the achievements of a particular state government. The Central ministries too put out huge publications which recount national achievements or announce new schemes often lacking verifiable details about costs, the target beneficiaries and the timelines for their execution.

When it comes to publicity blitzkriegs, apart from the Delhi government which appears to have made publicity a virtue, states surpass one another by releasing entire spread sheets in English national dailies although the beneficiaries’ are overwhelmingly Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu speaking. Presaged by photographs of Chief Ministers, and notwithstanding that the bulk of the readership of such newspapers has no link with the either the schemes or the beneficiaries, such supplements just seem to mushroom. It is nothing but an effort to garner visibility and buy gratuitous publicity. And possibly infuriate political rivals.


Shallow Publicity

  • Government ads lack credibility and are rightly seen by most readers as mere propaganda.
  • These advertisements do not serve the interests of deprived people of the concerned state in whose name the schemes are launched.
  • The proposed ombudsman will hopefully regulate advertisements being put out by the Centre as well as state governments.
  • As a corrective step, officials should be made accountable for what is being claimed.
  • It should also be ensured that government advertisements reach out to the intended beneficiaries.

Tool of Govt Propaganda

Government publicity budgets are notoriously fuzzy and badly managed. Ministries and state governments seldom have an earmarked budget. Funding is carved out of scores of schemes and usually timed to coincide with specific occasions such as the World Tuberculosis Day or the launching of a new project or scheme.

Such advertising is generally unimaginative and boring as governments rely either on the Directorate of Audio-visual Publicity or agencies selected by the State Information and Public Relations Departments, not known for their creativity.

Most advertisements extol past achievements and hold out promises about a rosy future, interspersed with photographs of smiling villagers or the urban poor, standing next to health centres, schools, irrigation projects or rice fields. Such ads lack credibility and are rightly seen by most readers as government propaganda.

Regulation for Govt Ads

Then why is public money being wasted? One explanation is that it keeps the managements of newspapers financially buoyant. Giving ads to all, including hostile publications is an added investment in PR and who knows, insurance against hyper-active cub reporters fishing around for scams. Whether such ads amount to paid news or serve as indemnity against bad press, what is certain is that they do not serve the interests of the deprived people of the concerned state in whose name the schemes are launched. To buy journalistic benevolence in the name of poor people – largely ignorant, even illiterate – is not just folly. It is a betrayal of the trust imposed on the political executive.

The proposed ombudsman will hopefully regulate advertisements that are released by governments. The regulator would do well to question the following:

First: To what extent do the advertisements relate to an essential and obligatory function of the concerned department? If it is so claimed it should be certified by the official issuing the order to the advertisement agency. This single step would make officials accountable for what is claimed and also make the expenditure subject to audit. Advertisements explaining new government policy or the provisions of a new statute or rules would fall within this category. Advisories  relating to preventive health, those dealing with government procurement of goods and services would likewise be legitimate publicity. (None of these require embellishment with the minister’s persona).

Second: Do government advertisements reach out substantially to intended beneficiaries? If the ad relates to roads or irrigation projects say in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Telangana will the intended beneficiaries gain information primarily through such advertisements? If the circulation of a newspaper does not substantially include the targeted beneficiaries such a campaign should be treated as political advertising.

A few strictures and possibly penalties if issued by the ombudsman would go far to check financial profligacy at public expense!

(The writer is former Chief Secretary Delhi and one-time Secretary Government of India)

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