Federal Government Advertising Losing Credibility

Last year I wrote a blog “Has federal government communications and marketing become too politicized?”  In the blog I pointed out that the application of strategic communications has shifted focus from substance to image, from information to promotion, and from policy to communications. While it is legitimate for governments to communicate with citizens and it is not unusual for them to want to persuade those citizens, the question becomes when and where to draw the line.

Now an independent public service can accommodate modern marketing techniques if it has the checks and balances. For example I pointed out that my former employer Health Canada had a well-functioning social marketing program for public health promotion campaigns for many years. But after the Gomery Enquiry, a decision was made to centralize all of the advertising money in each department into the Privy Council Office which led to a politicization of advertising (see blogs written on the  economic action plan:  http://www.jimmintz.ca/2013/02/18/canadians-weary-of-economic-action-plan-ads/  and http://www.jimmintz.ca/2013/07/24/why-would-you-run-a-government-ad-campaign-that-is-a-bust/ )

Communications and marketing at all levels of government has become embedded in the structure of government; and the communications work environment has become more politicized by centralized operations and direction; Strategic communications and this would include marketing relies on embedding communications and marketing activities into the structures of the public service, thus institutionalizing it, and then consolidating it within centralized functions.

Therefore when problems hits the government that may hurt their political positioning, communications and marketing people in today’s public service communicators tend to become involved in assisting in the defense of the government. They are left with little choice as the whole communications and marketing function have become, in the past decade, an integral part of the government and has become politicized.

For example, Warning young people about the dangers of smoking pot should be about as controversial as telling them to brush their teeth.

But   Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail  states in Canada, in 2014, where the  government’s insistence on putting its political stamp on policies that were previously left to independent agencies or experts in the bureaucracy means that even its public service announcements (PSAs) are suspect. Where an anti-pot ad aimed at teens seems partisan.

The most recent anti-marijuana campaign, in particular, seems conveniently timed to discredit the Liberal Leader who supports legalizing pot according to Yakabuski. What’s really sad about this modus operandi is that worthy public health initiatives are discredited because fewer people trust government to act in anything but its own interest.

An article by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, published in the June issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that pot-smoking teens, whose brains are still developing, risk permanent impairment. It found that “regular marijuana use in the early teen years lowers IQ into adulthood, even if users stopped smoking marijuana as adults.”

Yet the country’s medical establishment ( who have partnered with Health Canada for many years) pulled out of Health Canada’s upcoming ad campaign aimed at discouraging young people from smoking marijuana and abusing prescription drugs because it did not want to be seen as a political pawn. The Canadian Medical Association and two other groups representing the country’s doctors had earlier agreed to let their logos be used in the multimillion-dollar campaign that was reportedly set to launch this fall.

“The campaign, unfortunately, took a twist that looked a little political,” outgoing CMA president Louis Hugo Francescutti said. “And as a non-partisan organization, we heard from our members loud and clear that they did not want us to be affiliated with that.”

The bigger question according to Yakabuski is if many parents see this campaign as “propaganda about Mr. Trudeau’s marijuana proposal”. It will be impossible for them to take the ads at face value. He ends his article with “It’s a sad day when you can’t trust your own government’s PSAs.”

Partisan political advertising masquerading as vital government information or public service was not invented by the Conservative government. The Liberals did the same thing in their time, but since 2006, the government has taken this practice to new heights and you can assume whoever is in power in the future will do the same thing.

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