John MacDonald: Don’t Blame the Government for Ad Spending

Yes, there were stupid expenses. But I think we would have more to worry about if there were none, writes John MacDonald. Photo / 123RF

OPINION:

Now, before you accuse me, I’m going to raise my hand and say “yes, my finger is in the pie; yes, my snout is in the trough; and yes, I’m in the gravy boat”.

I think that covers all the things that could be thrown at me for what some people will probably think is my defense of the huge increase in public spending on advertising over the past few years.

The commercial media company I work for benefits from government buyouts – which means I benefit too. So, there you have it, potential conflicts of interest are taken care of.

And, I’ll tell you what, if you’re not happy that the government is spending more on advertising than ever before – we’ve got ourselves to blame. It’s your fault. It’s my fault.

I will make it. But let’s start with the numbers, as Newstalk ZB reports today.

Over the past five years, advertising spending by the public sector and Crown agencies – that is, the government – has increased by 122%. So it went from $56 million to $125 million.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest jump has been in the past two years. In 2020 the government spent $97 million on advertising, last year it was $125 million.

Why so much more money? Well, the government says it has been necessary to provide essential information on things like Covid-19.

But the National Party is not buying this, and says much of the money being spent has nothing to do with Covid and is being used to sell government policies like the 3 water reforms. Which, by the way, should be considered a huge waste of money, right?

By and large, every government department advertises. ACC, Department of Home Affairs, Waka Kotahi – everything.

And National thinks it’s time for the government to rein in spending.

There are plenty of numbers floating around – including $43m spent on advertising for the Covid vaccine program alone.

Newstalk ZB deputy political editor Jason Walls says it’s a matter of perception as to whether the money is spent on public information or propaganda.

I think it depends on the purpose of the ad, whether it’s propaganda or not. The Three Waters advertisements were definitely propaganda.

Others might say that everything the government announces is propaganda in one way or another, because everything the government does has some sort of party ideology behind it.

Especially the current government, which can pretty much do what it wants because of its majority in Parliament.

But I actually think the government has no choice but to buy advertising – that’s where our “fault” in all of this comes in.

These days, we – as a society – are questioning everything. Especially when it comes to politicians.

I have lost count of how many people have told me they think TV1 News is just a propaganda machine for the government. Let Jacinda Ardern pull the strings behind the scenes. And some nights it looks like that.

And then when a politician gets shredded in an interview, people love it.

So if you’re the government and there’s information that you think really needs to get out there, you know right off the bat that it’s going to be an uphill battle because it’s not the media’s job to sell politics governmental. It’s the job of the media to question it.

And so because each of us questions everything and demands transparency about everything – whether we are involved in the media or not – we leave the government no choice but to buy advertising time so that it can say what he wants to say – or what he thinks needs to be said.

And that’s why we find ourselves in a situation where, as reported today, public spending on advertising increases by 122% over five years.

And I agree with that, because if the government didn’t think it was necessary – that would mean we fell asleep or we live in some kind of communist state. And the last time I checked, none of those things are true.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think the government’s big advertising spending was a waste of money.

My pick for the biggest waste of money would be those ridiculous “Road to Zero” traffic safety ads. I don’t know about you, but every time I drive, there’s nothing in those ads that influences what I do. Nothing.

Another example of wasteful spending, which I mentioned earlier, is the government’s 3-water advertisement. I think these ads have people’s backs, more than anything.

So, yes, there were stupid expenses. But I think we would have more to worry about if there weren’t.

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