For Austrian media outlets, public advertising is very important, especially since the coronavirus crisis worsened the economic situation. But experts criticize the lack of transparent criteria for its distribution.

Public advertising in media outlets is a controversial issue. Austria is not an exception to this rule, especially since this kind of advertising is traditionally important in the country.

“The volume of advertisement by public bodies in Austria is very high”, Daniela Kraus, director of the Vienna press club “Presseclub Concordia“, said. “We are talking about an amount of 180 million euros per year.“ The importance becomes even clearer in comparison to Austria’s neighbours: In 2017 – a year with federal elections in Austria as well as in Germany – the German government spent less money on advertisement, even in absolute numbers, despite Germany’s population being nearly 10 times as big as Austria’s.

The coronavirus crisis didn’t cause the debate over public advertising. But it made existing problems and imbalances more visible – especially since there is more money involved than ever. In the first quarter of 2020 the government’s advertisement costs increased by 43 percent. The federal chancellery alone tripled its expenses. Of course, such increases are not unique to Austria. The German government more than doubled its advertising costs in 2020, albeit from a lower starting point. In Austria, the major share from this growth has come from coronavirus awareness campaigns. Between March and May, the Austrian government spent 10 million euros on its “Schau auf dich, schau auf mich” (“Look out for you, look out for me”) campaign. The money helped struggling media outlets, but it also sparked a preexisting debate about potential conflicts of interest.

Austria is not an authoritarian state, and it would be too straightforward to assume a simple quid-pro-quo situation. But there are concerns over self-censorship. Studies have shown there is an imbalance in public advertising spending in Austria, which disproportionally benefits tabloid media. In November, the non-profit organization Medienhaus Wien published a report about ministerial advertising spending in 2018 and 2019 at the federal level. For most of this period, the former coalition between the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) was in charge.

Two-third of the money went to the country’s three biggest tabloids (Österreich, Krone, Heute). The spending for so-called “quality media“ and regional media was significantly less. This imbalance can only be partly explained by circulation. In fact, it becomes even clearer when you compare the spendings to readership: The tabloid Österreich received 5.15 euros per reader in 2018; the daily Kleine Zeitung 1.71 euros; and the daily Der Standard 0.89 euros. In digital advertisement, the website of Austria’s biggest tabloid, received six times the money that did, despite having only slightly more reach. The coverage of the big tabloids is usually regarded as more favorable to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and the government. This also applies to governments on state level, regardless of party affiliation.

The study by the Medienhaus Wien does not give a complete overview over public advertisement spending. Important players, especially the state government of Vienna, are not included. But it offers a glimpse into why the nature of public advertisement distribution is often regarded as problematic. Andy Kaltenbrunner, who conducted the study, described the way Austrian governments distribute advertisement as “unashamed, unimaginative and feudal”. It has been this way for many years, but it became even clearer under the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, Kaltenbrunner said. “The motto is: We give it to whom we want.”

Experts criticize the high level of public advertisement in Austria, but in particular the lack of transparent criteria used to distribute it. Public bodies are more or less free to spend the advertisement budget where they want. Tabloids usually benefit disproportionally, at both federal and state levels, but there are other examples as well. In Vienna, small but important media outlets receive significant amounts of public advertisement from the state government, especially in relation to readership. In Austria, public advertisement is not just advertisement, it’s also not just another part of the media subsidies, but often something in between.

It’s also worth noting that in Austria, public subsidies to media are traditionally low. In 2018, the Austrian government’s direct advertisement spendings alone were roughly three times the amount of public subsidies to media. This gives advertising an outsized significance.

The coronavirus crisis has raised the stakes. “The economic struggle and the decline of private advertisement have made media outlets more dependent on public advertisement”, Kraus said. The Presseclub Concordia, as well as other experts, have for years know demanded that the public has a right to know why money is spent the way it is. “We need clear definitions of the goals of a campaign and transparent and public media planning”, Kraus said. “There has to be an evaluation: Which advertisement is needed for communicating which goal and why?” Additionally, experts like Krause argue that ads should only be booked in media that comply with ethical standards (most experts propose using membership in the Presserat, a self-regulating body by the Austrian press, as a criterion) and an increase of media subsidies to lessen dependence on circulation and public advertisement as sources of income and to strengthen independence.

In November, the new coalition in Vienna between the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the liberal NEOS took a step in this direction. They announced that they will develop new, “clear and transparent” rules for public advertisement, preferring media outlets that respect the journalististic duty of care. This will be interesting: In the past, Vienna’s state government also spent disproportionally more money on advertisement in the tabloids. It remains to be seen how these changes will be worded and what changes they will bring in practice.