OTTAWA – The Conservative government is spending more than five times as many taxpayer dollars on promoting its economic plan as it is on raising public awareness about the flu pandemic.
And that’s once again raising a long-standing question: when does government advertising cross the line into partisan boosterism?
Television viewers may have noticed the latest feel-good government ads about stimulus spending, including the Conservative-friendly, anti-election pitch: “We can’t stop now,” and “We have to stay on track.”
All the ads direct viewers to a Tory-blue government web site that includes more than 40 different photos of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and refers repeatedly to “the Harper government” – apparently in direct contravention of Treasury Board communications policy.
The TV spots are just the latest $4-million salvo in a $34-million media blitz trumpeting the Conservative’s recession-fighting budget.
Meanwhile, with public health officials fretting over an onrushing fall flu season, the spread of the H1N1 virus and widespread public apathy about the need for vaccination, no television ads are in the works to combat swine flu.
Health Canada’s home web page, however, does include a prominent link to the Conservative economic action plan website (www.actionplan.gc.ca).
The Public Health Agency of Canada says it has a total marketing budget of $6.5 million to inform Canadians about the H1N1 virus and how to avoid infection.
Some $4.5 million of that was spent on ads in newspapers, public transit ads and on the web that ran from April to August.
The health agency has committed another $2 million to radio spots that began airing last week, just as new swine flu outbreaks were being reported.
Opposition MPs say the spending disparity in the two ad campaigns simply highlights the obvious: The government is using public funds to toot its own horn.
“Guys, you’re spending all this money to promote yourselves. Maybe some work on the prevention of H1N1 would be helpful,” Liberal critic Martha Hall-Findlay said in an interview.
The Liberals first objected to government ads earlier this summer that claimed the federal stimulus funding was “80 per cent already implemented.” That glossy campaign is also highlighted on the government’s action plan website.
Marketing experts say partisanship in government advertising is highly situational, ever-present and may or may not cross ethical lines.
Federal advertising guidelines speak vaguely of not promoting any political party or entity, but Hall-Findlay concedes the rules are so loose as to be unenforceable.
Ontario, by contrast, began screening provincial government ads in 2004 under a strict law that attempts to stop partisan messaging.
Jonathan Rose, a political communications expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., advises the ad clearance group for the auditor general of Ontario.
Rose says the Ontario law requires examination of not just what the ads say, “but also the relationship between the ad buy and the campaign imperatives.”
That means ads that fall close to a scheduled election – or, say, when a minority government’s defeat appears imminent – will be given particular scrutiny.
“One might expect ads that require citizens to do something (such as things to prevent swine flu) have a stronger reason than those ads that have no information related to changing behaviour or attitudes in the public interest (anti-homophobia ads for example),” Rose said in an email.
A case can be made for current government ads that promote the popular home renovation tax credit, which requires Canadians to keep receipts and actively apply for tax reimbursement.
But it’s harder to understand the public service utility of spending millions of tax dollars to advise Canadians that their money is being spent on infrastructure projects.
Tim Dewhirst, an associate professor at Guelph University’s marketing and consumer studies department, says government ads may be informational, persuasive, or serve as reminders – with ads that focus on providing specific information to the public the least problematic.
Dewhirst said many of the Tory economic action ads appear to be aimed at persuading rather than informing.
“There’s probably a lot of other issues that people would say is money better spent than trying to be persuasive about an action plan that’s supposedly already 80 per cent implemented,” he said in an interview.
“If it’s 80 per cent done, is there much of an informing purpose still necessary?”
The $34-million economic ad budget is spread between four federal departments – Canada Revenue Agency, Finance, Human Resources and Skills Development, and Infrastructure Canada. But all inquiries were directed to the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office.
PCO did not respond to a written list of questions from The Canadian Press over a three-day period last week.