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United States Government | The Ad Council

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The United States Government is, inevitably, one of the country's biggest advertisers, although its actual expenditure is significantly lower than that of leading commercial companies. In 2015, for example, the US Government was ranked #40 by advertising expenditure, well below the likes of General Motors, Procter & Gamble, McDonalds or even Amazon. In this the US varies from many other countries, for example the UK, where the Government has until recently been among the top five advertisers. However the reason is that much public service advertising in the US is privately funded by independent non-profit associations and foundations or produced and distributed "pro bono" - in other words for no cost or fee - by advertising agencies and media companies. Much of this latter work is coordinated by The Ad Council, a body custom-built for exactly that purpose.


Who handles advertising? Click here for Agency Account Assignments. Kantar (in Advertising Age) estimated total US Government media expenditure in the US of $918m in 2016, including measured media expenditure of $587m. In most cases marketing is handled directly by individual government offices. The biggest spending department in 2016 was the US Department of Health & Human Services (measured spend $139m), followed by US Army ($83m), US Postal Service ($73m), US Navy ($57m) and US Air Force ($38m).

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Traditionally the biggest government-funded campaign under the Bush administration, the ONDCP, was embroiled in controversy for several years after it was alleged that senior managers at agency Ogilvy & Mather had knowingly overcharged for work done on the account. That case rumbled on for some time before being resolved during 2005 (see O&M profile for more). More recently, military recruitment has been the government's most pressing issue, as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the US Army account has also come under press scrutiny. Previously held by Leo Burnett, the account came up for statutory review in Spring 2004, but after months of deliberation, no decision had been reached by the end of the year and Burnett's contract was extended by six months. There was another six month extension in July 2005, with Army sources blaming "inconsistencies in the evaluation process". A final decision was made in December 2005 and the account transferred to McCann.

While the government continues to spend a sizeable amount of money on internal advertising, among the country's most pressing requirements in recent years has been to deal with the tide of anti-Americanism that steadily increased around the globe during the presidency of George W Bush, mainly in Muslim countries, but also in Europe. Throughout the Cold War era, this cultural diplomacy was managed by the US Information Department, a government agency set up to promote America's cultural identity abroad, with great success. This program was seen as less relevant after the fall of Communism and the agency was disbanded in 1999, with its duties nominally transferred to the State Department. Following the 9/11 attacks, it was perceived that there was a need to re-establish some form of global communication. Charlotte Beers, a former head of JWT and O&M, was appointed as assistant under-secretary of state for public diplomacy with a brief to launch a "shared values initiative" designed to improve perceptions of the US in Arab countries. However that program was widely regarded as a dismal failure, not least because it was unable to address the root causes of ill-feeling, specifically the military action in Iraq.

In September 2005, Karen Hughes, a close adviser to President Bush and former communications director, was appointed as the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy, a sign that the government was now giving this area the attention it needed. However Hughes' initiatives were considered clumsy and often patronising. She too stepped down at the end of 2007, and was replaced by journalist James Glassman. Public attitudes towards the US changed dramatically following the election of Barack Obama, and have remained generally positive, despite the role of the US banking industry at the centre of the recent recession. Nevertheless the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs remains. The current incumbent is Judith McHale, former CEO of the Discovery Network media group. Since her appointment in May 2009, she has travelled tirelessly to all corners of the earth to spread a positive message on behalf of her nation.

There are also private sector bodies which involved in pro-American public diplomacy. The most significant advertising industry body is Business for Diplomatic Action, an apolitical group founded and run by Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, with the support of a wide selection of other ad industry leaders. It identifies three main causes other than foreign policy for the rise in global anti-Americanism: namely corporate globalisation, the pervasiveness of American culture and entertainment, and bad manners on the part of American visitors to other nations. As a result, its goal is to educate American companies and individuals on how to communicate more effectively and sensitively with other cultures. Private sector organisations like BDA are widespread in the US, and fund a huge proportion of the public service advertising that is handled in many other countries by central government. They are in turn funded either privately as charities, or directly by a government agency.

Much of this public service advertising is coordinated by The Ad Council, a private non-profit organisation funded by charitable donations from leading advertisers and agencies. It aims to produce around 50 campaigns each year. In general the council acts on behalf of sponsors such as government bodies or privately funded non-profit organisations to commission marketing for specific particular issues. These mostly relate to social welfare, and must be non-commercial. Among those causes handled by The Ad Council are children's issues, preventive health, education, community well being, environmental preservation and family welfare. Creative execution and media space are donated free of charge or funded from corporate donations. For the year to 2010, companies such as Coca-Cola, Google, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, P&G, Time Warner and Yahoo supported the Council with donations of $150,000 or more each, and another 500 or so gave lesser sums. Around 50 agencies give their time for free to the Ad Council for pro bono campaigns, and media owners donate around $2bn in inventory each year. The Ad Council hosts a collection of current and past campaigns online at Ad Council Creative.


The Ad Council was first conceived in 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor which initiated American involvement in World War II. In response to an address from JWT director James Webb Young, asking "What action can be taken?", the Association of National Advertisers and American Association of Advertising Agencies combined forces to fund the creation of a War advertising Council, charged with producing public service advertising. Among its first efforts were such famous campaigns as Rosie The Riveter, which recruited more than 2m women to join the industrial workforce; the safety campaigns Loose Lips Sink Ships and Loose Talk Costs Lives, to encourage Americans to be discreet about potentially sensitive war information; and above all Buy War Bonds, which generated more than $35bn of private funding towards the war effort. Increasingly the organisation also became involved in matters not directly associated with the war. For example, in 1944 it assigned a campaign to prevent forest fires to Foote Cone & Belding, which created the iconic Smokey the Bear character.

In 1945, at the instigation of President Truman, the War advertising Council was given the new name of The advertising Council, and took responsibility for public service advertising. Over the following years, the organisation coordinated campaigns in support of the Red Cross, the Peace Corps and UNCF. In the 1980s it was responsible for promoting Crime Prevention advertising, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drugs campaign, "Don't Drive Drunk", the crash-test dummies safety belt campaigns and the first AIDS advertising. More recently the Ad Council led the country's Campaign For Freedom, promoting a message of hope and healing in the wake of the September 11th terrorist atrocities.

Last full revision 13th July 2017

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