Harper government spends $26-million on winter ad blitz

Ottawa — The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a news conference at paper plant in Windsor, Que., on Jan. 6, 2011 (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Taxpayers are shelling out $26-million over three months for all those Economic Action Plan ads the Harper government is airing on TV and radio.

A marketing specialist says the outlay is more cash than a big advertiser like Procter and Gamble would spend in a year in Canada.

The massive TV and radio buy is shared among three federal departments for slick ads that began airing Jan. 11 and wrap up by March 31. The ads have been hitting some of Canada's priciest advertising real estate: the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and Hockey Night in Canada.

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Human Resources and Social Development Canada has budgeted $14.5-million on three separate advertisements over nine weeks. The Canada Revenue agency is shelling out $6.5-million over 11 weeks, and Finance would only say its $5-million campaign runs during February and March.

All the ads link to the Economic Action Plan website which has drawn the ire of critics across the political spectrum for its partisan tenor.

The current run of television ads is also coming under fire, in particular a Finance department spot that features actors singing the praises of the Harper government's 2009 budget plan.

"We're getting ready for the future," a student-like character tells the camera.

"The global economy is still fragile," a francophone mother figure quickly adds.

"But we have a plan we can rely one," chimes in someone dressed as a farmer.

A series of phrases in light lettering hint at specific measures in the plan: "Knowledge Infrastructure," "Small Business Tax Cuts." But they don't explain how people can access those measures.

Critics say the ads are aimed at promoting the government when they should be giving citizens specific program information.

"There is a clear difference between an ad selling Canada Savings Bonds - or perhaps where [and]how to get a passport dealt with - than EAP ads," said Kevin Gaudet of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The federation recently resurrected Canada's federal "Debt Clock" - last seen in the early 1990s - and Mr. Gaudet said "stopping the clock will involve scrapping this kind of advertising that smacks so much of partisanship."

Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, called the dollars involved "huge."

"A major advertiser like Procter and Gamble wouldn't spend that within a year in Canada, it's that big," he said.

Annualized to about $100-million for a full year, "not even McDonald's and Tim Hortons spend anywhere near that."

Corporate giant Bell Canada spent $89.5-million on measured media in 2009, according to Marketing Magazine.

The Prime Minister's Office, although it advises and must sign off on all government ad campaigns, referred The Canadian Press to recent committee testimony from a senior civil servant for comment.

Anne-Marie Smart of the Privy Council Office told the government operations committee last week the overall strategy is designed by the prime minister and his cabinet. All ads must be "aligned to government priorities" and must "address the information needs of Canadians."

"All [EAP]advertising is aimed at driving people to the website," said Ms. Smart. She added that the site itself "is not considered advertising."

Total federal advertising cost taxpayers $136.3-million in 2009-10, including $53.2-million on the Economic Action Plan.

The 12-week total cost of the current campaign left opposition critics dumbfounded.

"This is an absolutely obscene amount of money to be spending, particularly promoting an 'action plan' with no action left in it," said Liberal MP Mike Savage.

"This is an abuse of government resources. It's offending Canadians, it's confusing Canadians and it's angering Canadians."

Pat Martin of the NDP called it "tantamount to a blitzkrieg."

"My God, they're carpet-bombing the country with self-serving messages at the taxpayers' expense."

The spending totals come on the heals of news that Finance has set aside another $4-million to advertise the March 22 federal budget during this current fiscal year which ends April 1.

John Baird, the Conservative House leader, dismissed Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's complaints about the $4-million budget as relative chump change.

"If he wants to complain about a million here or four million there, he'll have to respond why he wants to waste $300- or $400-million on an early, opportunistic election that no Canadian wants," Mr. Baird said.

But Mr. Middleton, the marketer, said the surest sign of a pending election is the government's own advertising blitz.

"It's amazing how spending by departments that make you feel the government's doing something goes up enormously before there's an election called."

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