Creepy Pennsylvania Tax Agency Ad Goes Big Brother

A threatening TV commercial appearing in Pennsylvania has residents of the state spooked by its "Orwellian" overtones, and critics are calling it a government attempt to scare delinquent citizens into paying back taxes.

In the 30-second ad, ominous mechanical sounds whir in the background as a satellite camera zooms in through the clouds and locks onto an average Pennsylvania home. The narrator begins her cold and calculating message:

Your name is Tom ... You live just off of 5th Street ... Nice car, Tom — nice house. What's not so nice is you owe Pennsylvania $4,212 in back taxes. Listen Tom, we can make this easy. Pay online by June 18th and we'll skip your penalty and take half off your interest because Tom, we do know who you are. 

The satellite snares its target — Tom's house — and the screen flashes another menacing line as the ad peters out:


Critics say the ad is a threatening campaign against Pennsylvanians — and one that will be a clear waste of taxpayer money if it doesn't work.

"Clearly the government is trying to intimidate and threaten people, which I don't think is something government should do," said Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"These Pennsylvania ads are irritating, a waste of money and government bullying," he said.

Pennsylvania is also running print ads warning of the "imminent death of Mr. Nice Guy" once its 54-day amnesty period ends in mid-June. "But after June 18, well, things could get complicated," reads one ad.

Don't speak English? Don't think you're safe from the taxman: The state is running Spanish-language ads with the same threats in mind.

Pennsylvania's Department of Revenue defended the ad campaign, saying the spots tested well with focus groups who were incensed at tax delinquents.

"The ads are intentionally edgy," said Pennsylvania Department of Revenue spokeswoman Stephanie Weyant.

"Obviously with advertising we're trying to cut through the clutter and motivate tax delinquents ... to pay up in a very short time. Our budget in Pennsylvania depends on it."

Weyant told that Pennsylvania is suffering a $1.1 billion budget deficit, and she said tax delinquency further deprives the state of millions each year, even as the majority of Pennsylvanians are unfairly forced to cover the burden for tax dodgers.

"Ninety-seven percent of Pennsylvanians pay their taxes," she said. "This advertising campaign is targeted toward the 3 percent who avoided the department's efforts to collect back taxes from them."

Under the terms of the amnesty, Pennsylvanians who owe back taxes have from March 26 until June 18 to pay what they owe, avoiding fines that are generally levied and paying only half the interest they owe. If they miss the cutoff date, an additional 5 percent fine is levied against them going forward. Most of the money covered by the amnesty comes from unpaid corporation, income, sales and inheritance taxes, according to the state.

Whatever the criticisms of the ads' tone, Weyant said they've already been a success, drawing in 14,000 applications from delinquents and $16 million in back taxes — a first step toward the $190 million the state hopes to raise.

Tax amnesties have become popular tools among states facing budget crises, but none have taken so harsh or threatening a tone in their public pushes to collect tax dollars.

Brushfire, a New Jersey-based ad agency that created spots for the Garden State's wildly successful 2009 amnesty campaign, said they steered clear of open threats — and it worked.

"The idea was to abandon the traditional approach of threats and scare tactics and instead demonstrate that Tax Amnesty was here to help taxpayers catch up on their debt so they could move on," said John Leonardi, chairman of Brushfire, Inc. "Rather than put forth a punitive message, we wanted to answer the 'what's in it for me' question in a positive way. We wanted to show how Tax Amnesty would help, not punish the taxpayer."

New Jersey's tax amnesty netted nearly $750 million for the state — when lawmakers had originally expected to pull in only $200 million. Other states have recently conducted similar amnesties, including Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Virginia.

Oregon's ad campaign showed clear sympathy for delinquents who have painted themselves into a corner by not paying taxes. Louisiana is touting their campaign as an upbeat "Window of Opportunity" in its amnesty ads, though just 300 people have viewed the spot online. Even fewer have seen the Oregon ads.

The controversial Pennsylvania ad has already been viewed more than 180,000 times.

"Good bad or indifferent, people are talking about the advertisement," Weyant told

The technology featured in the ad is widely available online and hardly novel, said Weyant, an idea with which some critics concurred.

"It's not as if there is any information that the government doesn't already have that they're going to get by looking at Google Earth," said Mitchell, of the CATO Institute.

"The government theoretically already has your address from last year's tax return."

But Pennsylvania isn't finished with its tax delinquents, and it is hoping to turn the heat a little higher. The Department of Revenue already publishes a list of the state's top 200 delinquents, a practice it says it picked up from other states in 2006 to great effect. The list currently includes only incorporated businesses, but will soon be expanded to include individuals as well in an effort to shame them into paying.

"It works," said Weyant, who told that over $100 million had been paid in back taxes since the lists were first published online.

But the Pennsylvania amnesty hasn't gone off without a hitch: its earliest days were marred by hour-long waits and busy signals at the department's amnesty call center, a malfunctioning e-mail system and alerts sent to people who owed no money at all, the Associated Press reported.

But Weyant remained optimistic.

"We had to triple the number of people that we had on our phones to keep up with the volume of calls," she said. "So far we've had a very good response."