Selling government, like Coke or Nike

In the article below, Winnipeg Free Press publisher Bob Cox highlights some of the issues surrounding government advertising in Canada. Cox argues that today’s government has abandoned informative newspaper advertising and shifted its focus towards television campaigns that emphasize branding rather than educating tax-paying citizens.

The piece originally appeared in the May 9, 2013 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press. Members are welcome to republish the piece accrediting the author and original publication source.

Stephen Harper finally conceded something this week that people in the newspaper business have been saying for a long time – federal government advertising is no longer about informing citizens.

Maybe it’s quaint to think that government advertising should be limited to spending taxpayers’ dollars telling people the details of programs and services. But I still cling to this idea.

Not so for the Prime Minister.

He defended more than $100 million in advertising his government has done to promote itself, saying it helps Canadian confidence.

“Canadians understand and are very proud of the fact that Canada’s economy has performed so much better than other developed countries during these challenging times,” Harper said in the House of Commons when pressed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau was questioning government plans to extend to 2016 the feel-good campaign centred on the “economic action plan” campaign.

You know the ads – the ones that pop up over and over on ultra-Canadian programming like hockey broadcasts and Murdoch Mysteries. Smiling, happy people don hard hats and march off to work, all thanks to Stephen Harper’s government.

They point to the “Action Plan” website. It carries a Government of Canada tag, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was put out by the Conservative Party.

The main headline after the recent federal budget: “Harper Government Focused on Jobs, Growth And Long-Term Prosperity With Economic Action Plan.”

The site introduces us to such such people as “Sandy,” who, despite being an animated, fictional character, “is relieved to hear that the Government of Canada wants to help caregivers like her…” By the end of the video on the Family Caregiver Tax Credit, Sandy has saved enough money to buy her animated mother an animated walker. This kind of advertising does not create work for Canadian actors, either.

There does not seem to be a link to the latest report from the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, which says that, far from increasing employment, there will be 67,000 fewer jobs in Canada by 2017 than there would have been without the measures in the budget.

Make no mistake about who makes advertising decisions in the federal government. That is done at the cabinet table, by Stephen Harper and his ministers.

They’re the ones who have treated us to such federal feel-good advertising as the TV commercials on the War of 1812-14, the equivalent of the British government spending money to commemorate the Napoleonic Wars.

I’ll state my bias clearly. The government does Economic Action Plan advertising primarily on TV and radio. It has almost eliminated its spending on newspaper advertising in recent years. Government advertising that contains program information and details works well in newspapers. Brand advertising is more often seen on TV.

But I would not be writing this if the government had simply reduced its advertising spending or was simply shifting money to new ways of reaching people. There are lots of ways of getting information to people.

I also would not be writing this if the Conservative Party was doing this promotion. Political parties can spend money where they want.

Taxpayer dollars are different. Taxpayers don’t need the government to make them feel good about being Canadian. They don’t need to be sold on a brand, as if the government were Coke or Nike.

They often need information about programs and services. That’s what the federal government used to advertise. But that seems to be just an old-fashioned idea, based on Stephen Harper’s comments this week.