The commercials ran on MSNBC on shows hosted by Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann in 2009, but the contract didn't report any jobs created, according to records reviewed recently by The Washington Times.
Spending reports under the federal Recovery Act show $495,000 paid to McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations LLC, which the Labor Department hired to raise awareness "among employers and influencers about the [Job Corps] program's existing and new training initiatives in high growth and environmentally friendly career areas" as well as spreading the word to prospective Job Corps enrollees.
The firm ultimately negotiated ad buys for "two approved spots" airing 14 times per week for two months on "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" and "The Rachel Maddow Show," according to a project report, which listed the number zero under a section of the report asking how many jobs had been created through the stimulus contract.
David Williams, president of the nonprofit watchdog Taxpayers Protection Alliance, called the contract "questionable" because it created no jobs and because of the placement of the ads on shows viewed as friendly to the administration's policies.
"Hiring a PR firm does not create jobs, and this was obviously meant for selling a particular political agenda," Mr. Williams said. "The placement really reeks of a political ad rather than a job ad, and taxpayers see through this.
"Taxpayers would be a lot happier at the end of the day to see a completed road rather than a bunch of ads on cable television," he said.
The public relations firm did not respond to inquiries from The Times about who directed the ads to appear on MSNBC, but Labor Department officials defended the expenditures, saying the decision to place the ads on the network — now NBC News — had nothing to do with politics.
In a joint email statement to The Times from two Labor Department spokesmen, David Roberts and Michael Volpe, officials said the money was used for outreach efforts to raise awareness among potential employers about the Job Corps' green training in career areas, including automotive, advanced manufacturing and solar-panel installation.
Mr. Roberts and Mr. Volpe also said Labor Department research showed that advertisements would reach the target demographic of business owners and managers interested in hiring "green-trained" employees through a programming list that initially also included shows hosted by CNN's Larry King and public television's Jim Lehrer as well as the two MSNBC programs where the ads eventually appeared.
Public television was eliminated because advertising rates were too high, Labor officials said, and Larry King was dropped because MSNBC held the potential to reach more viewers, officials said. Officials gave no indication whether their research indicated if Fox News, ESPN or other cable outlets were considered for the Job Corps ads.
The Labor Department said that as measured in "gross impressions per spot," the two MSNBC shows — Mr. Olbermann is no longer with the network — were twice as effective compared with running ads on Mr. King's show, which also is no longer on the air.
Mr. Obama signed the $829 billion stimulus into law in February 2009 with the promise it would sustain 3.5 million jobs. But at its peak it likely was responsible for far fewer, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.
The president has since said the economy was in a deeper slump than he had predicted coming into office, and the White House says the stimulus's combination of spending and tax cuts helped bolster state and local governments and keep the downturn from becoming a depression.
Republicans, though, argue that the price tag was too large and say much of the spending went to fund Mr. Obama's political agenda, such as green energy programs, rather than to shovel-ready roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.
The use of tax dollars to promote administration programs and policies is hardly new. The practice came under scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers who were upset about advertising during the George W. Bush administration.
In 2006, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study requested by Democrats found more than $1.6 billion in public relations and media spending by the Bush administration during a two-year span.
A search of GAO reports in recent years doesn't reveal any comparable studies reviewing public relations and media expenditures during the Obama administration. But federal purchasing records available online show thousands of contract actions since the change in administrations under specific purchasing codes both for advertising and public relations services.