Feds Spend Billions on Useless Samples, Public Relations Gimmicks, and Mascots Nobody Knows

By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
Mark Tapscott is an award-winning investigative editor and reporter who covers Congress, national politics, and policy for The Epoch Times. Mark was admitted to the National Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Hall of Fame in 2006 and he was named Journalist of the Year by CPAC in 2008. He was a consulting editor on the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Other Than Honorable” in 2014.
October 31, 2019Updated: October 31, 2019

WASHINGTON—Everybody knows who “Smokey the Bear” is, but do you know about “The Green Reaper?” How about “Brite the Light Bulb?” Or “Rex the Ready Lion” and his buddies, “Eli and Layla the Mighty Minters?”

No? Well, don’t worry, because hardly anybody else has ever heard of these mascots either. They were paid for as part of the $1.4 billion federal bureaucrats spend annually trying to drum up public support and awareness for a multitude of obscure government programs.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) says such wasteful spending should stop. To that end, Ernst introduced the “Stop Wasteful Advertising by the Government Act of 2019” (SWAG) to put an end to tax-paid, throw-away goodies like keychains, fidget spinners, and koozies.

“As an Iowa State Cyclone fan, I’ll be the first to say that mascots can be fun. But there is no justification for spending a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer money on mascots and millions more on swag,” Ernst said in a statement announcing her proposal.

“These costs come at the expense of real national priorities. The $1.4 billion spent on government PR and advertising every year, for example, is twice the amount dedicated to breast cancer research. It’s time to bag the swag,” she said.

The term “swag,” as used by Ernst, is slang for “stuff we all get,” especially at trade shows, fairs, and conventions, according to an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

If enacted, her proposal would prohibit the federal government from spending money to create a “mascot” to promote an agency, program, or agenda, unless such a character is explicitly authorized by statute—like “Smokey Bear” or “Woodsy Owl.”

It would also permanently prohibit public relations and advertising for purely propaganda purposes, allowing exceptions for military recruitment and other specific functions that are authorized by statute; require agencies to publicly disclose spending on public relations and advertising; and prohibit the purchase and distribution of merchandise such as buttons, coloring books, fidget spinners, keychains, koozies, or stickers by federal agencies, unless explicitly authorized by statute.

“Federal agencies have paid a frightening $250,000 of taxpayer money to construct their own custom-made costumes of characters most people would not know or recognize,” according to a fact sheet Ernst released in conjunction with her statement concerning her proposal.

“At least one reportedly scares children, while others are difficult to move in or obstruct eyesight, which violates the government’s own Halloween safety recommendations.”

Among the 18 mascots Ernst highlighted were:

  • “The Green Reaper” for the Department of Energy’s National Security Technologies Energy Program. Instead of a deadly scythe, the mascot holds a flower to encourage elementary school kids to conserve energy.
  • “Sammy Soil” is used by the Department of Agriculture to promote the National Resources Conservation Services program.
  • “Brite the Light Bulb” was created by the Department of Defense (DOD) to promote the U.S. Navy Installation Command’s Shore Energy Program.
  • “Franklin the Fair Housing Fox” comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Fair Housing and Opportunity. The fact sheet quotes a HUD official, saying “our hope is that this mascot will lead to greater housing opportunities for all.”
  • “Rex the Ready Lion” comes from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deploys the character to help build public support for being prepared for natural disasters.

In her statement, Ernst cited a 2016 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that states, “Federal obligations for advertising and public relations contracts have, on average, been close to $1 billion annually over the past decade, ranging from a low of about $800 million in fiscal year 2012 to a high of about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2009.

“Obligations for these contracts are concentrated among a few agencies, with 10 agencies responsible for 95 percent of these obligations over the past 10 years.”

The GAO report stated that the DOD accounts for 60 percent of the swag spending analyzed by the congressional agency, and it estimated the employment costs for civil servants conducting the activities at $400 million annually.

The report pointed out that “although advertising and public relations contracts data provide an indication of the magnitude of federal spending on public relations activities, they do not capture the full scope of these activities,” because “signs, advertising displays, and ID plates” could not be disaggregated from other activities under the public relations category.

Contact Mark Tapscott at mark.tapscott@epochtimes.nyc

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