How to regulate the misuse and abuse of government ads
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2009-06-23

Advertising is a marketing tool which utilizes mass media in order to promote a product — usually a brand — with the ultimate objective of generating a positive action or response from the target market. When your Chair Wrecker was still a college lecturer in the 1970s and 1980s — that was how advertising was defined at the start of every new school year.

Advertising has been integrated into our socio-economic culture and it is through advertising that we have come to know the many new product developments and innovations. Much of the successes in the business world can be traced to good utilization of advertising.

Advertising is not without its downside. Advertising has been blamed for promoting the materialism and MUST-HAVE mania these days.

Critics tend to blame advertising for inducing people to eat bad foods, internalize a materialistic culture, and adopt an ostentatious lifestyle — among other issues. Such was never the goal of advertising but yes, it can be blamed up to a certain point for those negative effects.

Lately, advertising has found itself in the vortex of controversy over the scandalous misuse and abuse of the tool by government officials who have utilized the advertising resources of their agencies, municipalities, cities or province for what are largely perceived as self aggrandizing efforts stealthily disguised as public information activities.

Much of the misuse and abuse of government advertising resources are connected to political objectives, the attempt to generate personal awareness and recall paid for by public funds. Even without an election in sight, the misuse and abuse are evident in those billboards, posters and streamers that proliferate — claiming how much we owe our public servants for building a road, a bridge or what not which we, not they, paid for. We, the poor taxpayers are paying to satisfy the feelings of inadequacies of our public servants, their desire to be recognized.

In many of these misused government ads, the messages are patently self-serving for the public official which mass media will have little reason to ventilate. If these were really news worthy, the government official would have preferred to see these on the news and editorial pages of media where a more positive impression is created.

The current advertising controversy extends to 2010 candidates who are spending their own money. Many accuse them of premature campaigning which, however, does not have a basis in law. It does not qualify as premature campaigning if the perceived candidate has not yet filed a certificate of candidacy.

Unless a new law can be passed that clearly bans all advertising prior to the election period, even if someone has not even filed a certificate of candidacy, then there is no point hemming and hawing about it. This is even iffy as an ethical issue and so making it a law is almost impossible.

To be able to regulate the advertising problem, it is important that we segregate the legal (spending one’s own money for one’s advertising) from the clearly improper utilization of taxpayers’ money for personal advertising. A new law can only be made to check those government officials who utilize taxpayers’ money to advertise themselves under the guise of public information.

he simplest way to do it is by creating a new law that imposes the following:

1. Ban all government agency officials and personnel from being featured in all government advertising. They can only appear in press releases and press conferences.

2. Strictly define the parameters when advertising can be utilized by a government agency or local government unit. A lot of current government ads are not even performing a public service to rationalize the effort and expense.

3. Strictly confine all advertising of government agencies to announcing or explaining agency vital services and in all these, no officers or personnel are allowed to be featured in the advertising. Let the product or service speak for itself. If it serves a useful purpose, people will read it.

4. Criminalize and impose penalties for violations such as a hefty fine plus payment for the cost of the advertising accompanied by a prison sentence for technical malversation of public funds. Depending on the amount misused, the prison sentence can be a minimum of one year to a maximum of ten years.

5. Add to the penalty the imposition of a perpetual ban from ever running for any public office. Having been found guilty of technical malversation of public funds, it is easy to justify why that person must not be allowed to hold an elective public office.

Fair and just, such a law cannot be accused of being tyrannical. But with such a law, it will no longer be worth it to utilize government advertising resources for self-aggrandizement. In effect, such a law makes the offense costly and counter productive for the violator.

The moment the likeness and name of the government official is mentioned in the government advertising, that person is already in violation of the new law. The violation will not save that government official advertising money but will, in fact, cause him to pay for a public service ad and serve a prison term.

he ultimate penalty — the ban from ever running for public office — removes the core motivation why they misuse and abuse government advertising resources.

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