$20 Bill Ads Have Istook Seeing Red

Posted October 22, 2003 at 6:31pm

It may take money to make money, but it shouldn’t take $53 million to make a new $20 bill.

So says Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), a leading fiscal conservative who charges that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is busting the budget by paying for a glitzy nationwide advertising campaign to introduce Andrew Jackson’s fresh face.

“I understand the desire to educate people that it is real currency and not counterfeit, but I don’t think you need to spend $53 million on an ad campaign for a bill that people are going to be using anyway,” Istook said. “I don’t think most folks in Congress would appreciate that.”

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing says that just 60 percent, or $32 million, of the campaign will promote the $20 bill, with the remainder devoted to upcoming makeovers for the $50 and $100 bills.

Even so, Istook, the chairman of the House Appropriations panel that funds the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, plans to counter the pricey campaign for the new bills with his own, well, bill.

In an interview, Istook said he will add language to his spending measure to force the bureau to slash the cost of the media campaign or pay for it by trimming other expenses.

The ad campaign, Istook said, “begged for attention — and they are going to get it.”

Istook said he got a positive reaction when he mentioned his idea to his Senate counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

The couple also draw support from the government-watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

“Either the government thinks Americans are not sufficiently intelligent to believe that a bill with Andrew Jackson’s picture, the words ‘Federal Reserve Note,’ the signature of the U.S. secretary of the Treasury and the No. 20 on it is a $20 bill, or Washington just has far too much money to spend,” said Tom Schatz, the head of the conservative group.

The campaign, crafted by Burson-Marsteller, features a pair of television commercials, a banner on the Acela high-speed train, posters in subway stations and bus stops and a massive billboard in Times Square.

In all, the bureau plans to spend $53 million to tell Americans that their greenbacks will now be splashed with color. That’s about a third of what the government spends each year telling kids to “Just Say No” to drugs, Istook said.

The bureau says the advertising campaign is necessary to raise public awareness of the new bills.

“We have a worldwide currency,” spokeswoman Dawn Haley said. “Because the dollar is widely used we have a responsibility to let users know of the changes.”

Haley said the bureau also is trying to learn from its mistake in the mid-1990s, when it ran a more targeted campaign to publicize new security features in its currency.

But after $25 million worth of ads, less than one in 10 Americans noticed the changes, according to research done by the bureau at the time.

This time, Haley said, “we wanted a far-reaching, multilevel, multitiered program.”

The new campaign, dubbed “The New Color of Money,” tells Americans about the new watermarks, security threads and colors in the revamped bills.

Though latter parts of the campaign will focus on the $50 and $100 bills, promoting the new $20 may be the most important phase of the campaign because it is the first colorized U.S. bill in recent history — and the second-most-copied bill behind the dollar, according to government statistics.

Even critics such as Istook understand that it is necessary to spend some money on an advertising campaign to promote the changes in the currency.

“It costs money,” Istook said. “But not $53 million.”

Officials at the bureau were surprised by Istook’s reaction. In September, bureau officials received little opposition when they briefed staffers on the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

Lawmakers did not object at the time. In fact, the spending bill for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing moved through Istook’s panel and the full House with little mention of the obscure agency.

But now Istook says he hopes to amend the bill in a House-Senate conference to send a signal to the bureau that he is not pleased.

“You can expect to see something in the bill,” Istook said. “They may not consider it to be taxpayer money, but I do.”