Seven federal agencies reported spending that much on 105 such campaigns between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2005, using radio, TV, the Internet, newspapers, magazines and billboards to advise people on ways to lead healthier and safer lives, according to a survey by Congress' Government Accountability Office.
The projects ranged from a $30 million multimedia effort to encourage people to file their taxes electronically to a $40 radio campaign to encourage volunteerism on public lands.
The Treasury Department, source of the electronic filing ads and a $24 million campaign on the new color of money, spent the most, followed by the Defense Department, at $37 million, and Health and Human Services at $33 million.
Much of the Pentagon money went to a $31 million project to sell adult educators on the value of military service. HHS produced numerous health related ads to educate people on diabetes, heart disease, counterfeit drugs and male depression, as well as ads on date rape, bullying and the foster care system.
Those agencies commenting on their campaigns invariably said they were successful, although there has been criticism that such campaigns are too expensive or tend to be ineffective.
"If you can't do it right, don't do it at all," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. He said commercial advertisers spend hundreds of millions just to promote a single product, and the far more modest government efforts to change consumer behavior "usually fall flat on their face."
But Peggy Conlon, president of the Advertising Council, the private group that produces and promotes government and nonprofit public service announcements, said many of the ads "really do cause people to take action."
She said one of the first campaigns, the Smokey Bear campaign on forest fires, is still relevant 61 years after it first came out. The "friends don't let friends drive drunk" campaign has helped reduce drunken driving fatalities by 75,000 over the past 20 years, she said.
The federal government has been producing public service announcements since 1942 when it urged Americans to buy war bonds. In most cases broadcasters and publications offered free space for PSAs, either as part of licensing agreements or out of a sense of social responsibility, and the costs to the federal government are in production and distribution.
Conlon said paid military recruitment ads and the anti-drug ads put out by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy are not regarded as PSAs.
Over the past year, she said, the Ad Council has received more than $1.8 billion in donated media space. One-third of the public service announcements the council does are for government agencies.
Among other such programs, Commerce spent about $1 million, some to promote the Census but also to warn of the hazards of rip tides and lightning. The Homeland Security Department spent $7 million to urge people to make preparations for emergencies.
Interior spent $4,000 to increase awareness of wilderness fires and $26,000 to urge tourists to visit national wildlife refuges. Veterans Affairs spent $273,000 to encourage nurses and nursing students to think about careers in the VA.