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.


Why would you run a government ad campaign that is a bust?


It is a total mystery to those who work in the public sector marketing field why the government insists on running an ad campaign that has reach its “best before date” and clearly is not working. Why would you continually invest in a communications endeavour that is hurting your brand? I simply don’t get it.

The feds says its Economic Action Plan “is working for Canadians,” but costly ads reminding voters of that aren’t working at all – at least not the way they are supposed to. So why keep doing it?


As the Globe points out Canadians are not responding to the Conservative government’s “action plan” ads, and the reason seems clear: Intended to illuminate programs and services, they are overly vague and have felt too much like partisan self-promotion.

I am not sure exactly who is involved in developing this campaign but I certainly hope it is not one of my former marketing students. Clearly these ads need to more targeted and provide some useful information.

A government-sponsored poll obtained by The Canadian Press asked 2,003 adult Canadians about ads that ran for months around the 2013 federal budget, ostensibly to encourage citizens to learn about programs and services. All of three survey respondents had visited the promotional action-plan website, as the ad encourages, and not one called the featured 1-800-O-Canada hotline. Of those who even remembered seeing the ads, only six per cent did anything as a result – and what nine of the respondents did was complain. Source

Yikes, with these types of results you would think some wisdom would prevail but alas this campaign keeps motoring along and no one has pulled the plug. Amazing!

Based on my many years of running government advertising campaigns, self-promotion by government is not a new phenomenon. But I cannot ever remember government taking it to this extreme.

The Economic Action plan ads which have cost at least $113-million since 2009 and have become fixtures on television – are often replete with broad allusions to “better infrastructure to make us more competitive,” or “more efficient government to keep taxes low.” No wonder most people tune them out.

In addition even if people like the ads initially, which would be surprising, there is a “wear out” factor with advertising and these ads are completely “worn out”.

Oh and one more thing , I cannot remember in my over 30 years of running government ad campaigns, running ads for programs which are in the planning stages and are not available to the public. Promoting the new Canada Jobs Grant which hinges on negotiations with the provinces, who are clearly not enamoured with this program, is clearly offside.

Are there no programs which are presently available to the public worth promoting?

I must say I am often baffled by decisions made by government on public sector marketing as regular readers to my blog know, but I must say of all the campaigns I have witnessed in my 35 years of public sector marketing this one takes the cake for incompetence.


Government spends more money on survey to give us an inferior product

In 2010 I wrote a blog about the The Senseless Census

Now actually I always felt that the government should rethink the census. Although the info we get from the National Household Survey (NHS) is useful, for marketers and business much of the data comes to us too late. There has to be a way in this modern age of technology to speed up the process.  But what I would have expected the government to do when making changes to the census is consult with the users. The data generated by the long-form census questionnaire provide decision-makers in the public and private sectors with a deep and rich set of facts about Canadians, facts that are reliable at the local, regional and national levels.

The concern at the time is that the response rate will likely be substantially lower and the resulting data less robust if the survey became voluntary, given that hard-to reach segments of the population will not likely be included among respondents. The experience of survey researchers and social scientists is that those in lower-income groups, ethnic minorities, and the wealthiest citizens would be least likely to answer questions voluntarily.

This would lead to skewed data and doubts about the accuracy of information that is relied upon by public policy and business decision-makers. Without robust census data, it would be exceedingly difficult for governments to respond effectively to shifting patterns of need in the populace or to introduce changes that provide the greatest value for money. One particularly problematic outcome of the elimination of the mandatory long-form questionnaire would be the eradication of the only reliable, national source of information on aboriginal educational achievement.

Census long-form questionnaire constitute crucial input for the sample designs of other national surveys. The long-form data are also combined with other survey data to compute and extrapolate rates for key social and economic indicators. For example, local health authorities can use their own survey data combined with census data to calculate rates of health service utilization and many other vital statistics.

Also concern about biased results on important dimensions were a concern such as income, education, housing status, and many others. Researchers across the country, working on projects in all areas of public policy and business decision-making, would not have data with which to correct for these biases. Finally there was discussion that it would be impossible for researchers to compare numbers from census to census, and analyze trends.


So here we are in 2013 and what do we have after the survey has been done?

The Globe and Mail reports that there continues to be serious doubts about the value of the NHS when compared to the mandatory long-form census. There is a general consensus that the NHS results are of some use at the national and provincial levels, but of no use at the local level. The harshest critics of the new voluntary system call its data “worthless,” because it does not produce a random, non-biased result, and because it is no longer mandatory – an obligation that had successfully gotten more and more aboriginal communities to take part.

The data from the 2011 NHS is certainly not worthless, but even the chief statistician admits it has not produced as valuable results as the mandatory long-form census would have. He also admits that it cost $22-million more than expected because more copies had to be printed and field workers had to chase down non-respondents.

So let me see, we spent an additional 22 million dollars for an inferior survey because the government was concerned about privacy. Now we all know that governments are big proponents of privacy (if you believe that I have got some cheap swamp land to sell you in Florida). It was not long ago our government introduced an Internet spying bill until there were so many complaints they had to withdraw it.

Canada needs a proper, randomized, long-form census and the data it can produce. Yes we need to modernise and find ways to improve our methodology of doing national surveys and maybe some questions needed to be removed because of their intrusiveness and concerns for privacy, but clearly the decisions made a few years ago are now coming back to haunt us.