Role of Advertising in Government

I spent many years directing major government advertising campaigns for the federal government. I am a very strong believer in government using advertising campaigns to promote programs, motivating audiences to improve their health and other important issues. During my career in government, I can honestly say that the motivation for the campaigns my team were involved with focused on important topics and issues particularly social marketing campaigns in the health area whose main objectives were to change attitudes and behaviours.

I have always felt that the advertising techniques used to promote commercial goods and services can be used to inform, educate and motivate the public about non-commercial issues, such as health, energy conservation and the environment. Advertising, in its non-commercial guise, is a powerful marketing tool capable of reaching and motivating large audiences.

However there has been some controversy in recent years on how advertising is being used by the Canadian government. Bruce Anderson recently wrote in the Globe and Mail “I’m not naive about government advertising or against it in every form. Earlier in my career, I worked on ad campaigns about the deficit, national unity and the GST, among others. Looking back, I’m not certain that some of the campaigns I worked on didn’t cross the line I’m drawing in this column. But each of those campaigns was at least about trying to build momentum behind an important and difficult change for the country.

But an ad campaign to vilify cellphone companies? To tell us something vague about a war fought 200 years ago? To let me know, just in case I was wondering, that the government truly cares for veterans? I’ve no quarrel with governments advertising to make people aware of programs and services, to encourage socially useful behaviour, and to build knowledge around important national issues.”

Government advertising can be controversial if it conflicts with citizens’ views about the proper role of government. Yet some government advertising is accepted as a normal part of government information activities.

According to the federal government website the Government of Canada’s approach to advertising is guided by the principles of value for money, transparency and accountability. According to the federal Treasury Board directive, advertising is an important way for the Government of Canada to communicate with Canadians about policies, programs, services and initiatives, public rights and responsibilities, and risks to public health, safety and the environment.

So one has to wonder why the government has launched a $4-million national ad campaign celebrating the Fathers of Confederation and a country that has become “strong, proud and free” more than two years in advance of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., is currently doing research on how the brand message of governing parties gets entwined with government advertising.

He compared the current Canada 150th birthday ads with those commissioned for the country’s 125th anniversary under the Brian Mulroney government in 1992. Marland states that “the Canada 125 ads were designed by politically correct bureaucrats; the 150 ads are designed by experienced marketers.”

He goes on to say that “It’s very smart marketing because it’s reinforcing other messages the government is sending out.” The ads emphasize the importance of strong leadership, highlight hockey and embraces the Conservative party history-based patriotism. Source

The government has spent more than $7-million on a 10-week, anti-drug advertising campaign. The TV and Internet ads by Health Canada ran parallel to a partisan radio ad campaign, paid for by the Conservative party, which attacked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau over his promise to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

As someone who was very involved in Health Canada campaigns dating back to 1981, there is no question that Health Canada has been communicating the dangers of drugs for many years and should certainly continue to support parents with the tools they need to ensure children to live drug-free lives. This is a very important mandate. This is particularly important now because Canadian youth are the biggest pot consumers in the western world, according to the United Nations.

What is unfortunate is politicizing an important effort to reduce drug use. The government which has for decades involved health organizations in their health campaigns attempted to involve three very prominent health organizations in the campaign, however, they publicly distancing themselves from the campaign because they felt they were political in nature. Source

The government spent $14.8-million in 2013 promoting “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” a catchphrase first created by the government to promote stimulus spending. As I pointed out in a previous blog this campaign has clearly not been very successful and has been tainted as partisan advertising.

The $2.5-million campaign to advertise a job grant program that did not exist is also questionable use of advertising by Government.


SCREEN GRAB - Canada's Economic Action Plan website -   video still -The Canada Job Grant  0520-jobs-grant-ads

This past week we learned about a multimillion-dollar campaign to market Canadian oil in the U.S. The Maple Leaf was plastered on the walls of subway stops in Washington, D.C., and it popped up in all sorts of American publications with messages such as “America’s Best Energy Partner” and “Friends and Neighbors.”



The $1.6-million (U.S.) ad campaign launched in 2013 was followed up by a $24-million, two-year international program. One can dispute if this was an effective use of ad dollars and perhaps there were better communication tactics that could have been used in this campaign.

The results of the campaign showed most D.C. respondents had seen the ads. They didn’t quite agree, however, on what they’d seen. The most popular take-away message, at 17 per cent, was that Canada and the U.S. were friends and energy partners. Building Keystone XL got 11 per cent.

One federal government official stated the ads were never designed to sway people about Keystone. They were there to spread a broader message people could remember and repeat, about an energy partnership with Canada. According to the government the ads were there to help create the political space for a (Keystone) approval which Canada has not yet received.

Let me know what you think.


Register by April 10 for Early Bird pricing MARCOM 2015

Check out our Workshop Program

Check out our Professional Certificate in Public Sector & Non-Profit Marketing, @ Sprott School of Business, Carleton University. Dates for 2016 to be announced soon.










Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × 2 =