Seeing Red On New Greenbacks

The front and back of the re-designed of the $20 bills, unveiled at the Treasury Department in Washington Tuesday, May 13, 2003. America's paper money --the venerable greenback --is no longer going to appear all green, getting a tad more colorful, part of a broader effort to thwart sophisticated counterfeiters. The Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which makes the nation's paper currency, debuted the new $20 in a public showing Tuesday. (AP Photo/Treasury Department)
In the past few weeks, you have probably seen those commercials advertising the new $20 bill. You may have also seen the full-page magazine ads promoting the new, improved 20. In addition to some security features, the new bills have a colorful background. And if you tilt them up and down, the color in the number 20 in the lower right corner changes from copper to green and back to copper. The advertising campaign is fun and breezy. I just have one question: why is there an advertising campaign for money? Is the government afraid that if they don't do a good marketing job, we'll get our 20s from someplace else?

Generally, advertising involves a product that somebody wants you to buy from them instead of from their competitor. But there's no competition here. If we don't like the way these bills are printed, we can't exactly get our new twenties from Kinko's.

What are we going to see next — commercials for air? "The new air. It's cleaner. It's safer. Go breathe it." What choice do we have?

And these are not cheap commercials — not like those from your local car dealership with the guy with the bad rug and a beer belly, videotaped by his son. These are high-quality commercials in primetime. The government is spending a lot of our new bills promoting our new bills.

They even have a Web site about the new money. I checked it out by clicking onto So, in case you people at the Treasury Department were wondering, I was the one who went to your Web site.

Once there, I learned that the main reason for these new bills is to combat counterfeiting. But I also learned that "currency counterfeiting has consistently been kept low for more than 100 years." They estimate that the level of circulation of counterfeit notes is somewhere between 1/100 and 2/100 of 1 percent. I'm not saying that this is an acceptable level, and we shouldn't try harder. But how necessary was this change and the commercials that laud it right now? If you go around the country asking people what their biggest problems are, I don't think "getting stuck with counterfeit money" would be at the top of too many lists. I know it happens in the movies all the time, but I've never once returned to my hotel room with a suitcase, only to be disappointed that the million dollars in it is bogus.

I also learned that there will be changes in other bills soon. They plan to introduce new designs of bills every 7 to 10 years. So our money will become like a Volvo — they'll change it just enough so that we'll know it's a new model.

The Web site also has a fun trivia game. That's where I learned that Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on United States paper money. I found that quite interesting and an important part of our history — a lot more interesting and important than the fact that our money is going to have new colors.

The timing of this thing is way off. Just when there are so many economic problems in the country, the government decides to print new money and advertise it as if it's something we all should cheer. Most people don't care what color money is as long as it's in their pockets. What would really make us cheer would be a new $20 bill that would actually buy more than the old one.

I'm going to send a copy of this column to John W. Snow, the Secretary of the Treasury. I'll let you know what he says about this whole thing. I'm aware that he may not respond. He probably has other things to do besides answer a disgruntled columnist. And I certainly wouldn't want to take him away from doing something really important — like picking out a tie in a new color.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver