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Over There (in the UK)

October 30, 2003 at 12 PM

Much Ado About Moolah

“I don’t know about you, but after seeing these ads, I’d be willing to pay up to $20 for one of those hip new bills.” — Rob Walker, of Slate on the new American twenty-dollar bill.

If you’re an “overseas” foreigner like me, you might have missed the announcement that the U.S. government has recently issued a new twenty featuring new security features and, we’re shocked—shocked!—to learn, which adds a dash of blue and peach to the traditional and proverbial green back. Walker’s article isn’t really about the new money itself, though; his target is the $32 million the feds have spent to publicize the new money. (That’s 1,600,000 twenties, in case you’re counting.)

State advertising is nothing new, of course. The military recruits through commercials. The government markets its bonds with ads. Perhaps it’s less common in the U.S., but state advertising often heralds important changes to social programs and policy. And I’m okay with that. The state of ignorance about what role the government plays in our lives is high in North American society. Once in a while, it’s a useful exercise to inform citizens of what’s happening with their tax dollars.

Rob Walker’s complaint is that the American government has wasted millions advertising a product that literally “sells itself”. It’s money. It’s not like you have a choice to accept the new twenty. What the ads are really about is reminding you that the government is Doing Something. The new money is “Safer, smarter, more secure.” Ah. Rest assured, the government is doing something about terrorism and security and all those pesky problems. Government Is Working For You.

Federal and provincial governments in Canada seem to have fallen in love with this idea. In fact, the Government of Canada is one of the largest buyers of ad time and space in the country. Hell, the feds have their own branding, and all of the provinces now seem to have a corporate-style logo. When Canadians attend sports and cultural events, we are surrounded by state advertising. The federal government pours millions into sponsorships which consist of nothing more than the Canada “wordmark” in giant type-size. It’s like a big sign saying “Don’t worry, the government is here!” There is an entire branch of government that is essentially devoted to justifying the rest of the government’s existence.

Need proof? In 1999, the Treasury Board of Canada commissioned a study to “evaluate awareness and recognition of the ‘Canada’ wordmark as the Government of Canada’s brand identifier (emphasis added). But it wasn’t just to determine if the citizenry could recognize the state’s existence. The study concluded that “85% of general public respondents and 81% of small business respondents agreed with the statement: ‘When I see this symbol it makes me feel proud to be Canadian.’”

We have a government that is attempting to sell patriotism through advertising. Some of us might call that propaganda. I call it ridiculous. How about using the untold millions to accomplish the things the government hasn’t figured out like, oh, I don’t know, properly funding our social programs, or adequately equipping our peacekeepers in Afghanistan.

Comments

Speaking as someone whose income tax rate more than doubled when he moved to Canada from the U.S., I guess I don’t mind being reminded that the Canadian and Quebec governments are doing a few worthwhile things with my money. I agree that the US advertising campaign for the $20 bill is ridiculous and unneccesary , but in a country like Canada where citizens are taxed more heavily it probably makes sense for the government to draw public attention to the programs it supports.

— Brad | Nov. 3, 2003 — 10 AM

Previously: New World Design

Subsequently: Culture Is Not Always Popular

October 2003
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I only really read it for Canucks coverage, but even still it’s nice that The Vancouver Sun finally redesigned its hideously awful website to look like it was designed this century.


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