Ryan, Phil. 1995. Of Miniature Mila and Flying Geese: Government advertising and Canadian democracy. In How Ottawa spends, ed. Susan Phillips. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.
[ The version presented here differs slightly from the published one.]

The Hatter in the Strand of London… has not attempted to make better hats, as he was appointed by the Universe to do, and as with this ingenuity of his he could probably have done; but his whole industry is turned to persuade us that he has made such.

Thomas Carlyle [1]

[p. 263] The Canadian government has a unique passion for educating the citizenry through advertisements. A 1987 study of forty-one countries found Canada to be the only place where the government was the top advertiser [2] The federal government, including its crown corporations, became the country’s largest advertiser in the mid-1970s, and has led the country in advertising almost every year since. [3] The government has used advertisements to inform us about “children’s needs,” remind us that we can talk to other family members during [p. 264] breakfast, convince us that fish are “modern and exciting,” persuade us that the GST is “fair, visible, and modern,” and assure us that “Yes We Can” compete in the global marketplace.

What are we to make of all this state-sponsored consciousness raising? Is the era of Big Brother upon us, or is government advertising an essential component of responsible leadership? In using tax dollars to promote its policies, is the government subverting democracy through propaganda? Or is policy promotion a legitimate attempt to counter the “noise generated by provinces and interest/advocacy groups,” as advisors to the current government put it? [4]

The importance of these questions may be blurred by the peculiarity of the present moment. At the time of writing, Canada is passing through a post-Mulroney phase, as peculiar as the post-Watergate phase in the U.S. Seeking to distance itself from its predecessor by all means possible, the current government hoped to shun “feel-good advertising emphasizing patriotism and optimism to mask failed or unpopular policies”[5]. But the fulsome tributes paid to Mr. Nixon upon his death should remind us that democracy’s memory is short. One day Canadians will forget all that the Mulroney era meant to them, and the government of the day will again feel that it is profitable to adopt the “information” tactics that have for the moment been discredited.

This paper will explore the implications of government advertising. After tracing the evolution of government advertising since the 1969 Task Force on Government Information, we will examine six questions concerning advertising:

  • How does policy advertising affect the power of office?
  • What are the objectives of behaviour modification advertising?
  • How does policy advertising affect the role of Parliament?
  • How does advertising affect the quality of policy debate?
  • How does advertising affect government-media relations?
  • What are the implications of advertising “partnerships”?

The Nature and Evolution of Government Advertising

[p. 265] Both the quantity and nature of government advertising have evolved in recent decades. Though comparisons of current and past government advertising expenditures are not entirely reliable, we estimate that the government’s advertising expenditures grew by 665% in real terms between 1968, the year Trudeau took power, and 1992, when the Mulroney administration’s public relations efforts peaked (see Appendix). There has also been an important shift in the nature of advertising, which may be captured through a “fuzzy” typology of government advertising:

  • Information about the state’s buying and selling activities (e.g. advertisements inviting project bids, offering information about Canadian Savings Bonds, advertising job openings);
  • Information about government programmes and policies (e.g. reminders of the deadline for filing tax returns, or explanations of Criminal Code changes concerning roadside breathalyser tests);
  • Business support (e.g. tourism advertising);
  • Institutional self-promotion, aimed at legitimizing the state as a whole or particular institutions within it (e.g. advertisements presenting Elections Canada “as a non- partisan impartial agency of Parliament”[6];
  • Canadian identity advertising, which seeks to influence the way we view our collective existence (e.g. the Secretary of State campaign “to promote a sense of Canadian identity to ethnic communities”[7];
  • Behaviour modification advertising (e.g. campaigns against drunk driving, youth smoking, and dropping out of school);
  • Policy promotion (e.g. the NAFTA and GST campaigns).

The typology is “fuzzy,” as its boundaries are not sharp. The distinction, for example, between offering information concerning a policy and selling that policy is blurry at best. The boundaries [p. 266] between categories are often blurred because many advertising campaigns pursue multiple objectives. Health and Welfare Canada used the slogan “Non, Merci” for a campaign to limit liquor consumption in Quebec. An innocuous slogan, except that the campaign coincided with the 1980 referendum [8]. Similarly, in 1991 all government departments were told that their advertising “should reinforce the themes of unity and prosperity”[9].

Despite its fuzziness, the typology highlights shifts in the nature of advertising in recent decades. During this time, advertising to promote federal institutions, shape the Canadian identity, modify individual behaviour and promote government policies has increased dramatically. Many point to the 1980 referendum, during which “a tidal wave of federal advertising inundated Quebec,” as a turning point [10].

Yet the groundwork for these new forms of advertising was laid earlier, with the report of the 1969 Task Force on Government Information, which articulated the rationale for the advertising practices that have since emerged. The task force report was permeated by a sense of threat: “We know that among huge minorities in the western countries, there is a new, profound and wide-spread disaffection with the pretensions of government”[11]. The mass media, the task force suggested, were implicated in this growing disaffection. The basic problem, the report argued, was the commodification of news, whereby news is used to sell papers to readers and television audiences to advertisers. The commodification of news put government at a disadvantage, since sober government information “does not help in the peddling of papers”[12]. As a purveyor of titillation, the mass media were “more interested in political pranks than in policy,” and operated by the maxim that “Good news is no news”[13]. Thus, the government must seek to escape the mediation of the media. This escape was to rely in part upon the media itself, turning its mercantile nature to advantage: “Advertising is one of the least expensive and most effective means of mass communication. It should be a basic pillar in a government information structure”[14].

The Trudeau government was listening. Early advertising campaigns of the Trudeau years generally fit the traditional profile of tourism support and basic information. But behaviour modification campaigns became popular in the 1970s, the most famous being the Participaction campaign. This effort was notable on two counts: it is believed to [p. 267] have been highly effective, and it lied to Canadians, no doubt for their own good. There was in fact no evidence to support the assertion that the average 60-year-old Swede was in better shape than the typical Canadian half that age [15].

The Trudeau years also witnessed the rise of advertising linked to the government’s partisan policy agenda. One of the earliest of these campaigns proclaimed the effectiveness of the Anti-Inflation Board in reducing inflation. Policy advertising intensified during the final Trudeau mandate. Apart from the deluge of advertising associated with the Quebec referendum, the government’s aggressive policy agenda led to a renewed desire to escape the mediation of the media. “Programs should be explained,” commented one minister, “and not by reporters, but rather by the people who created them” [16].

A central role in this “explanation” was played by the Canadian Unity Information Office (CUIO), formed shortly after the Parti Québécois’ 1976 election victory. In 1980, cabinet gave the CUIO $6 million for a campaign on the constitution, whose highlight was the (in)famous flying geese commercial. Beautiful scenery, elegant geese, and a voice-over reminding us that “Freedom is an important part of our heritage as Canadians”: all this was to create “a climate of understanding and acceptance” within which constitutional negotiations could proceed [17]. In fact, the campaign “fanned the paranoia” of the provinces, in the words of Roy Romanow, who feared that the campaign was preparing Canadians for a unilateral repatriation [18]. Overall, the CUIO would be given $32M to support Trudeau’s patriation scheme, earning the sobriquet “Propaganda Canada” for its efforts< [19]. After repatriation, CUIO broadened its activities, issuing advertisements and brochures praising government programs and informing Canadians of the fine work done on their behalf by various government M.P.’s [20].

Like the Chrétien mandate, the Mulroney years actually began with a promise to eschew “self-aggrandizing advertisements,” and one of the new government’s first acts was to shut down the CUIO [21]. By the end of the first mandate, however, partisan policy promotion was in full swing. The first major policy-promotion campaign was in support of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It is estimated that over $20 million was spent on FTA “information” [22]. In 1989, the [p. 268] government spent $2.7 million to tell Canadians just how good its latest budget was[23]. This was followed by a GST campaign costing some $14 million, and a million-dollar pamphlet praising the government’s economic policies, accompanied by an ad campaign urging people to read the pamphlet [24].

One of the Mulroney government’s more curious campaigns was the 1991 “Prosperity Initiative.” Employment Minister Bernard Valcourt defined the campaign’s objective as being “to inform Canadians of a threat to the continued prosperity, and, ultimately, the unity of the nation – even if the message is unsettling and unwelcome at first”] [25]. The $19 million campaign’s slogan, however, was the hardly unsettling “Yes We Can,” and advertisements featured informative headlines such as “When Canadians work together we can take on the world and win” [26]. Critics viewed the campaign as mere partisan propaganda. The initiative also included a public consultation exercise which, in the words of one official, is something that “these days you have to go through, unfortunately”[27]. The upbeat mood of the prosperity campaign was also emphasized in the 1992 NAFTA promotion, which included the government’s largest-ever radio advertising campaign [28].

But the most memorable advertising effort of the Mulroney years may well be that associated with the 1992 constitutional negotiations. As had the Liberals a decade earlier, the Conservatives flooded the airwaves with feel-good commercials in order to support their constitutional objectives. The Secretary of State spent $12.3 million on a campaign which featured “miniature Mila,” a young woman who bore a suspicious resemblance to the Prime Minister’s wife, squeaking about Canada, “so beautiful, green and clean”[29]. The government also stepped up Prosperity Initiative and Armed Forces advertising before the referendum [30].

The Mulroney government also continued the tradition of behaviour modification and social issue advertising, including a $5.5 million “Stay in School” campaign, the $9-12 million Green Plan communications effort, a $1.9 million campaign to “heighten American tourists’ awareness of acid rain,” the anti-smoking “Break Free” campaign aimed at youth, and a campaign on “the importance of communicating with children” [31].

[p. 269] And what of the future? While in opposition, the Liberals regularly condemned Tory advertising, in particular policy promotion ads. The government was engaged in “Soviet-style propaganda,” fumed Liberal advertising critic Don Boudria [32]. Ads praising the government’s economic policies “should be paid for by the Conservative Party – not the hard-hit taxpayer,” argued the opposition finance critic [33]. Jean Chrétien suggested that money wasted on advertising and polling be diverted to food banks and re-training [34].

Will the Liberals-in-power practice what they preached, or, like the Tories before them, will they embrace the tactics they condemned from the opposition benches? As of the time of writing, the new government had not engaged in major policy promotion campaigns, but this evidence is not decisive. The Tories’ most expensive campaigns were linked to their major policy initiatives, especially free trade and constitutional reform. As the new government has been almost bereft of major initiatives, it has had little cause to advertise. The government’s social policy agenda is the most likely candidate for a major advertising campaign, and a large-scale campaign to promote that agenda has been considered [35]. We can expect such a campaign to share some of the distasteful characteristics of Tory advertising: the government has already used advertising of questionable veracity to sell its position on post-secondary education [36]. The Quebec situation could also spark another round of rhapsodic advertising.

Six Questions About Government Advertising

Government advertising practices have various implications for the quality of Canadian democracy. We will examine six questions here, with the goal of suggesting an agenda for further research, rather than providing definitive answers.

How does policy advertising affect the power of office? By “power of office” we mean government’s capacity both to get things done, and to be re-elected. Does advertising which promotes government policies enhance the governing party’s ability to impose its views upon the Canadian people? Does it yield an unfair [p. 270] electoral advantage, by using public funds to enhance the image of the governing party?

Before exploring this question, we should note that, depending on the circumstances, the use of advertising to increase the government’s ability to get things done may or may not be a bad thing: one can imagine a situation in which a government wishing to encourage serious public consideration of a policy initiative had to confront demonstrable media bias against that initiative, or a hostile privately-financed advertising campaign. In such a situation, policy advertising might serve to “level the playing field” of public debate, rather than tilt it inordinately in the government’s favour. The 1991 advertisements defending tobacco tax increases, which sought to counter the tobacco industry’s well-financed anti-tax campaign, was in this sense a more legitimate effort than the Conservative government’s free trade advertising campaigns, which reinforced the efforts of private interests already able to out-spend opponents of the deal [37].

Legitimate or not, does policy advertising really have much impact upon the power of office? Opposition M.P.’s certainly claim to believe so, painting the effects of advertising in the bleakest terms. In 1982, John Crosbie commented that the scale of Liberal government advertising was such that “In four or five years it will not matter if there is an election or not… It will be tough for the government ever to change in this country”[38]. Crosbie was wrong, of course: the government was changed shortly after, which gave International Trade Minister Crosbie the chance to preside over one of the most intensive propaganda campaigns in Canadian history.

It is striking that the two administrations that have used policy advertising most extensively, the last governments of Trudeau and Mulroney, were soundly defeated in the subsequent elections. Policy advertising is, at best, a risky enterprise. A 1982 study found that many Canadians “challenge ads that they perceive as manipulative or as image-building for the government”[39]. If enough citizens view a campaign as illegitimate, that campaign could simultaneously increase support for a particular policy and reduce support for the government. Advertising to promote an unpopular policy may also serve to increase the salience of that policy in voters’ evaluations of the government.

[p. 271] In addition, if people have already formed an opinion on the policy in question, advertising may be relatively powerless to change it. One school of thought argues that advertisements have more impact on “low involvement individuals,” those who care little about an issue one way or another, because these targets are bereft of “perceptual defenses”[40]. “The uncontaminated time for persuasion,” argues Kenneth Hardy, “is before everyone is aware of the issue and particular stances”[41]. The Conservative government, in fact, relied upon this factor in its constitutional campaign [42]. But on issues such as taxes and Quebec, perhaps there is no “uncontaminated” time, and policy advertising can produce effects that are negligible or even perverse: a Decima Research poll found that, of those who claimed to have read the government’s GST tabloid, 47 percent said the tabloid made them less willing to accept the GST, while only 23 percent answered “more willing”[43].

Thus, policy advertising may not be the powerful tool of unscrupulous governments that opposition M.P.’s fear it to be. The recent historical record suggests that much policy advertising is little more than a waste of money, which, when one considers the alternatives, is relatively good news.

What are the objectives of behaviour modification advertising? The obvious answer would be that such advertising seeks to modify behaviour. But because such campaigns are often divorced from concrete actions that might support the official goal of the advertising, the campaigns often appear to be a purely symbolic output, reflecting a strategy of “let them eat images”[44]. Like Carlyle’s Hatter, government often decides that advertising is cheaper than action. Thus, the advertising efforts of the Conservatives’ Children’s Bureau to promote a “child-centred society” coincided with the government’s definitive scrapping of its twice-promised day care initiative. In fact, Children’s Bureau polling was used to justify the decision [45]. This divorce between action and advertising was not peculiar to the Mulroney government: the current government is planning the largest advertising campaign in Canadian history to discourage smoking after repealing taxes that had proven their anti-smoking effectiveness [46]. This decision was made shortly before the [p. 272] government admitted that the $10 million “Break Free” anti-smoking campaign was a “dud”[47].

But perhaps behaviour modification advertising itself is such an effective form of action that it need not be linked to other measures. If so, one would expect to see it evaluated as such. But the government seems to use extremely limited measures of effectiveness to evaluate behaviour modification advertising. Our Access to Information request for “any evaluations of the advertising and communication campaigns of the Children’s Bureau” yielded two survey results. In one, Decima Research concluded that “the Brighter Futures T.V. Ad was a success,” because 32 percent of respondents claimed they could recall the advertisement [48]. The second survey found that only 1 percent of respondents could identify the advertisement’s central message about “the importance of communicating with children”[49]. Though the Children’s Bureau spent millions on communications, no attempt was made to evaluate impact on actual behaviour.

Measures of effectiveness that focus on “recall” of advertisements appear to turn those ads into ends-in-themselves. Unfortunately, there are strong reasons for believing that such recall will not translate into action as might occur with commercial advertisements. That is, there are serious obstacles to “selling brotherhood like soap”[50]. Absent a serious attempt to evaluate the relation between “recall” and behavioural change, it is impossible to know whether the government’s behaviour modification advertising does more than project “concern.” Behaviour modification advertising has tended to escape critical scrutiny: it is not politically prudent to question ads against drunk driving or smoking. But if such advertising has little effect on actual behaviour, and is allowed to substitute for serious government action on urgent social issues, it may help sustain the ills that it claims to attack.

How does policy advertising affect the role of Parliament? As the Trudeau government intensified its reliance upon policy advertising in 1980, the chair of the Institute of Canadian Advertising expressed fears of “a further emasculation of parliament and parliamentary democracy”[51]. Traditionally, M.P.’s were to serve as a central channel of communication between government and citizens. But their [p. 273] “explaining” function seems increasingly marginalized by advertising, while their “listening” function is supplanted by polling. An important element of this evolution concerns the timing of policy advertising. In 1964, cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh took it for granted that the government could not advertise policies not yet passed by Parliament[52]. By 1981, the government was claiming not just the right but the duty to advertise such policies[53].

By the late 1980s, it seemed that the government had entirely forgotten the communication potential of Parliament: the only alternative to expensive advertising campaigns, suggested Michael Wilson, was “tom-toms”[54]. In fact, advertising was even hinting at the irrelevance of Parliament. A pro-GST ad announced that “On January 1, 1991, Canada’s federal sales tax system will change,” before the changes had been approved by Parliament[55]. Advertising budgets were also used to manipulate the visibility of various Parliamentary activities: while the government granted the joint House-Senate constitutional committee a $250,000 advertising budget, it denied a committee examining NAFTA $15,000 to publicize its hearings[56].

How does advertising affect the quality of policy debate? Of particular concern here is the sort of image- heavy advertising used in 1980 and 1992 to promote constitutional change. Politicians seem to fear that emotional appeals cannot be countered by reasoned argument, and manipulation by one party to a debate thus tends to call forth a similar response from the other: in the case of the 1992 referendum, Miniature Mila and beautiful scenery were countered with Preston Manning braying about “the Mulroney deal.”

Indeed, many advertising executives argue that the medium is simply not appropriate for reasoned debate[57]. Thus the ad agency handling the 1992 Secretary of State campaign advised its client to focus on “triggers” that “people relate to,” advice which led to the ubiquity of Paul Henderson on our television screens. The net effect, unfortunately, was that a complex constitutional question [p. 274] was reduced to one of “Do you love Canada?,” as one critic complained[58]. Nor was this the first time a referendum had been fought in this manner: government advertising for the 1942 conscription referendum declared that “Hitler would vote ‘No,'” and “Canadians will vote ‘Yes'”[59].

Polls and focus groups may play a key role in the search for “triggers” by which citizens may be manipulated. The Task Force on Government Information had recommended increased use of surveys, in order that the government might “hear all sections of the public, not just the vocal and the politically sophisticated but the shy and the poorly educated as well”[60]. The question, of course, is what the government does with that which it hears from “all sections of the public.” The fear is often expressed that polling is “aimed less at learning what citizens truly desired from their government than at discovering what catch phrases and gimmicks would appeal to their fears and prejudices”[61]. It is hard to interpret, for example, the extensive polling on the GST at a time when the policy was already decided as anything other than a component of the policy sales job.

Apart from their reliance on “triggers” that can manipulate citizens, advertisements can erode reasoned debate if they disseminate false information. The government is exempt from its own law on misleading advertising, and it has often taken advantage of this exemption. In 1990, the Canadian Advertising Foundation ruled that government radio advertisements on the GST were deceptive[62]. Together, radio and print advertisements claimed both that the GST was revenue-neutral and that it would “secure year by year reductions in the deficit”[63]. Other recent examples of misleading advertising include a 1992 claim that 113,000 new jobs had been created in recent months, nearly three times the official StatsCan figure, and the 1992 government tabloid that claimed that “by the mid-1990s the deficit will be virtually eliminated”[64].

Thus, while the Task Force on Government Information hoped that government advertising would help counter the media’s distortion of policy issues, much advertising has debased policy debate even further.

How does advertising affect government-media relations? Even when government advertising was a fraction of its current level, a report commissioned by the Task Force on Government Information [p. 275] spoke of “an unwritten and unspoken accord. As long as newspapers do their duty, as they see it, by informing the public, and as long as they do not make life unbearable for politicians, the status quo continues – government devoting the bulk of its advertising budget to daily newspapers”[65]. A few years later, one observer claimed that advertising money was already being channelled towards “friendly” media, and asked “Which media are going to be aggressively critical of a minister when he controls large sums of money and can influence where they are spent?”[66]

The government has upon occasion been willing to use its advertising resources to control editorial content. A 1984 edition of the magazine Jobs Canada included six pages of government advertising, and another eleven pages written and bought by the government, but not identified as such[67]. In 1986, Energy, Mines, and Resources offered papers an ad-for-articles deal: the department would spend $300,000 in advertising in any paper that published – as editorial content – at least six of thirty articles written by the department[68]. Among the articles was one titled “Federal Energy Minister Shows Alternative Fuel Leadership”[69]. While most dailies rejected the offer, various “community” papers accepted. It appears that the current Human Resources Development department is also seeking to help community papers write their news[70]. The government has also been willing to use its advertising dollars to freeze competitors out of the ad wars. Months before the 1992 referendum, the government booked $2.2 million of outdoor advertising space for September and October, with the result that “Non” forces in Quebec found it hard to buy outdoor space during the campaign [71].

Thus, evaluations of government advertising should note that, apart from questions of content, the sheer bulk of that advertising can affect the democratic process.

What are the implications of advertising “partnerships”? In the spring of 1994, visitors to McDonald’s received a copy of “Jr. Jays Magazine.” The front cover is an ornate plug for the company. Upon opening the booklet, however, one finds the Health Canada logo, complete with Canadian flag, located just under the golden arches, to the left of a declaration that “It’s Always Party Time at McDonald’s.” The bulk of the booklet is a comic format story. Like a modern movie, ads are hidden within the story: an ESSO [p. 276] sign just happens to pop up in one frame, a Konica film logo in another. But pride of place goes to Canada’s favourite junk food. Offered food by a pre-historic character, one boy states “Yuk!! Where’s a McDonald’s when you need one?” At the end of the ordeal, the characters shout “Let’s have some Pizza!… Yeah! At McDonald’s!” The Health Canada logo appears again on the back cover[72].

The booklet is a result of a health promotion “partnership” between Health Canada and the private sector. This particular partnership, the “Junior Jays Digest and Kids Club,” was initiated by Health Canada in 1992. The ostensible goal was “to promote the concepts of a positive, healthy lifestyle” to seven- to-twelve year olds, “the most impressionable age”[73]. Among other issues, the programme was to promote good nutrition, which may be why the sponsorship of McDonald’s, Wrigley and “Cadbury’s Crunchie” was solicited.

Such partnerships are seen as a means by which government agencies can increase their promotional activities despite limited budgets, and Health Canada feels that the strategy is a success: “In the last five years, Health Canada has entered into more than 80 partnerships which added an estimated $40,000,000 to the resources available to the department”[74]. The McDonald’s example suggests, however, that partnerships do not simply transfer private resources “to the department”: the private partners have their own objectives, which may or may not be consistent with those of government, and appear skilled in using government-initiated campaigns to pursue those objectives.

The case raises interesting questions about the possible effects of government advertising efforts. Can the state really enter into such “partnerships” without implicitly endorsing its partners’ products?[75] Do such endorsements affect the legitimacy of the state? Is the respect enjoyed by symbols of country and state enhanced or diminished when those symbols are used to peddle McFood?[76] One also wonders whether the “partner state” can be a “regulatory state”: do “partnerships” have the potential to create a complex web of obligations between the state and particular interests, a web which will influence state decisions and render the logic of those decisions more opaque?[77]


[p. 277] We do not wish to argue that specific forms of government advertising are always illegitimate: as noted above, it is easy to imagine circumstances under which a government would be well-justified in using advertising to put its point of view before the citizenry. It is also easy to support behaviour modification advertising which takes aim at a variety of social ills, providing that advertising is effective.

Nevertheless, safeguards could be enacted which would address some of the concerns raised in this article. One such safeguard would be an “advertising commissioner” who could monitor advertising campaigns and order compensating funds to be made available to the opposition parties in cases where a campaign was deemed excessively partisan. Exceptions might be made in situations where the government wished to respond to a privately-financed advertising campaign, or where the government could convincingly demonstrate strong media bias against a particular policy.

Such “equal time” provisions have their drawbacks: Patrick Boyer has suggested that they can simply lead to “a war between ad agencies financed by the public purse”[78]. But if the government could refer proposed campaigns to the commissioner prior to their inception, an equal time order would have strong dissuasive power. We have already seen that the political impact of policy advocacy campaigns is mixed even without equal time provisions: knowing that such a campaign would put millions of advertising dollars into the hands of the opposition would make the government think twice. Canadians might also support the idea of giving the commissioner the power to veto feel-good image-mongering, thereby banishing Miniature Mila and the flying geese from all future policy debates. The commissioner should also have the powers necessary to discourage misleading advertising.

Other problematic advertising practices might be highlighted by the Auditor General’s office. The Auditor General’s examination of advertising spending has been limited to questions such as tendering procedures or the lack thereof, the assignment of “responsibility for managing and co-ordinating the communications function,” and whether the government “had considered alternative methods of communicating the desired message”[79]. A closer look at the effectiveness of behaviour modification [p. 278] campaigns, one that demanded evidence that such campaigns actually influence behaviour, might diminish the temptation to use advertisements as a substitute for action on social issues. The Auditor General should also demand – and make public – a clear accounting of government expenditures on advertising and public relations in general.

One final issue concerns polls, focus groups, and other “consumer” research. The Task Force on Government Information, which recommended the increased use of surveys, also stated that “there is no reason why both the fact of all government-sponsored surveys, and the results of them, should not be made public knowledge”[80]. Successive governments, on the contrary, have found all sorts of reasons. A law providing for the immediate release of both the results and methodology of all government-sponsored research would have various benefits. It would certainly discourage the government from an excessive reliance on polls, as such polls could highlight the unpopularity of particular policies. Polls and other research designed to identify the “catch phrases and gimmicks” by which the public could be manipulated would also be less frequent under a “sunshine” law. Finally, release of the research methodology would place controls on the manipulative use of data.

The goal of these and other possible reforms should be to ensure that advertising actually helps the government fulfill its responsibilities. Canadians can accept advertising that helps the hatter make better hats. We should not tolerate advertising that tells us that the hatter is merely concerned about the issue of hats, or that seeks to persuade us that shoddy hats really are good ones, or that assumes that airborne geese and postcard scenery will melt our critical faculties and make us welcoming of whatever hats are served up.


An Estimate of the Growth Of Government Advertising

A report commissioned by the Task Force on Government Information found government advertising statistics in a “deplorable state”[81], and even in 1982, a Parliamentary request for historical data on advertising expenditures was met with the reply that there was “no central control” on advertising prior to 1980[82]. Though such central control should now be in place, neither we nor opposition M.P.s have been able [p. 279] to obtain cooperation in the search for recent data[83]. It seems that the government prefers that we not be aware of the amount it spends to raise our awareness.

Thus, for some sense of government spending, we must turn to data compiled by private media monitoring organizations on the “time and space” expenditures of the country’s largest advertisers[84]. By this measure, federal government expenditures for 1968 were $3.4 million[85]. By 1992, they had risen to $113.3 million[86]. There is a comparability problem, however: since 1980, the data have included certain major crown corporations that were previously listed separately[87]. In 1992, the advertising spending of these previously excluded bodies was $6.8 million[88]. This would yield an adjusted total for government advertising of $106.5 million, thirty-one times the 1968 figure. Adjusting for inflation with the GDP deflator[89], we estimate an increase in real advertising expenditures of 665% over the quarter-century.

We should stress that this procedure indicates the trend in government advertising expenditures, rather than the absolute amount of those expenditures. As noted above, the figures used are for “time and space” costs only, and exclude the “non-media costs” associated with advertising preparation. Thus, for example, the “time and space” cost for the Canada-125 campaign was $10.1 million, while another $2.2 [p. 280] million was spent in advertising production[90]. Stanbury, Gorn, and Weinberg estimate that “non-media” costs may be as high as 50 percent of “time and space” costs, a ratio twice that of the private sector[91].

Finally, it should also be noted that the estimates exclude expenditures related to tabloid mailings, cheque inserts, and other advertising avenues that do not involve the purchase of media space or time.


I would like to thank Susan Phillips, Saul Schwartz, and Beth Woroniuk for their helpful comments on the first draft of this paper, and Nielsen Marketing Research for its help in tracking down some stray data.

1. Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (London: J.M. Dent, 1912), 136.

2. Only two other countries had governments in the top ten: the U.K. (2nd place), and Australia (4th place). See “Tables Track Top 10 Spenders around the Globe,” Advertising Age (Chicago), December 14, 1987, pp.62-63.

3. Sources for government expenditures and ranking: Marketing‘s annual ranking of advertisers; Robert Bale, “Losing Grip on the Market,” Financial Post (Special Report), December 2, 1978, p. 4; Frances Phillips, “Ottawa Still Tops the List of Advertising Spenders,” Financial Post, March 16, 1985, p. S4; “Ottawa Tops Ad Spenders,” Globe and Mail, April 25, 1984, p. B8; “Ottawa Outspends Firms on Advertising Spending,” Globe and Mail, March 17, 1987, p. B10; Ben Fiber, “Ottawa Cuts Ad Spending By $20 Million,” Globe and Mail, June 17, 1986, p. B24; Dan Westell, “Ottawa’s Ad Outlay a Debatable Issue,” Globe and Mail, May 12, 1984, p. B1; Adam Mayers, “No Sign of Restraint Seen in Ottawa’s Ad Spending,” Toronto Star, April 13, 1989, p. D1; Tony Van Alphen, “Governments Buck Trend Toward Higher Ad Spending,” Toronto Star, March 15, 1990, p. C1.

4. Human Resources Development, “Communications Strategy” (Ottawa: unpublished, 1994).

5. Ross Howard, “Cabinet Dispute Holds Up Ethics Package,” Globe and Mail, March 18, 1994, p. A6.

6. Stan Sutter, “$4 Million on Ads to Get Out the Vote,” Marketing, October 17, 1988, p.1.

7. “Government Hopes to Hit Home with Ad,” Marketing, February 23, 1987, p. 5.

8. Morris Wolfe, “The Case Against Advocacy Advertising,” Saturday Night, December 1980, p. 17.

9. Peter Maser, “Campaign to Make Us Feel Good Lightens Our Wallets,” Vancouver Sun, June 2, 1992, p. A5.

10. Wolfe, “The Case,” p. 17. See also Bryan Johnson, “Self-promotion Ottawa Style: Spend Money,” Globe and Mail, May 8, 1982, p. 10; Duncan McDowall, “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor,” Canadian Business Review (Autumn 1982), p. 30.

11. Task Force on Government Information, To Know and Be Known (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1969), p. 1:1.

12. Ibid., p. 1:10.

13. Ibid., p. 1:11.

14. Ibid., p. 2:323.

15. “The impact of Participaction’s Swede commercial was immeasurable,” enthuses one health researcher, “especially when you consider that it really wasn’t true.” Julien Feldman, “Fitness Agency Tones Up Canada,” Financial Times of Canada, December 2, 1991, p. 14.

16. Paul Taylor, “Blais Sold on Government Advocacy,” Globe and Mail, May 6, 1981, p. B5.

17. Wolfe, “The Case”; Dan Westell, “Cabinet Approves Campaign About Constitutional Reform,” Globe and Mail, August 6, 1980, p. B3.

18. “Issue-oriented Drive Possible,” Globe and Mail, August 20, 1980, p. B4.

19. Johnson, “Self-promotion”; John Foss, “The Media Must Have Consistent Standards,” in Duncan McDowall, ed., Advocacy Advertising: Propaganda or Democratic Right?(Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada, 1982), p. 80.

20. David Stewart- Patterson, “Federal Cabinet Allows Massive Ad Budget Rise for Unity Information,” Globe and Mail, August 31, 1984, p. B3.

21. David Hatter, “Ottawa Trims Fat From Ad Budget,” Financial Post, March 16, 1985, p. S14; Hugh Winsor, “The High Cost of Feeling Better,” Globe and Mail, May 26, 1992, p. A1.

22. Joyce Nelson, Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1989), p. 81. “Free Trade Promotion,” Financial Post Daily, June 1, 1988, p. 6.

23. Hugh Winsor, “Government Advertising to Sell Budget Shows Only One Side of Coin,” Globe and Mail, May 8, 1989, p. A2.

24. Geoffrey York, “$1.3- million Pamphlet Touts Ottawa’s Policies,” Globe and Mail, October 10, 1990 pp. A1-A2; House of Commons, Debates, June 16, 1992, p. 12181; Ian Austen, “Tory Flyer Tab May Top $2 Million,” Calgary Herald, December 21, 1990, p. B8.

25. Ross Howard, “‘Yes, We Can’ Ads Irk Opposition,” Globe and Mail, December 6, 1991, p. A10.

26. House of Commons, Debates, June 16, 1992, p. 12181; Sandra Porteous, “Government Messages Urge Canadians to be Competitive,” Marketing, December 9, 1991, p. 4.

27. Ross Howard, “Ominous Signs on the Path to Prosperity,” Globe and Mail, November 12, 1991, p. A19.

28. Scott Feschuk, “NAFTA Sell Begins,” Globe and Mail, September 1, 1992, p. B4.

29. Maser, “Campaign to Make Us Feel Good”; Frances Russell, “Line Blurs Between Government Ads, Propaganda,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 6, 1992, p. A7.
For the cost of the campaign, House of Commons, Debates, September 9, 1992, p. 12778. Overall, some $25-30 million were spent on Canada-125 public relations. Ibid., April 10, 1992, p. 9666.

30. Stan Sutter, “Yes Advertising Gets a No from Voters,” Marketing, November 2, 1992, p. 1.

31. Robert M. Cohen, “Bad Ads Ruin a Vital Message,” Financial Times of Canada, March 16, 1992, p. 9; Ross Howard, “Cultivating Green Plan Cost $12.5 Million,” Globe and Mail, October 31, 1991, p. A4; House of Commons, Debates, April 10, 1992, p. 9666; “U.S. Tourists to Get Earful on Acid Rain,” Financial Post Daily, June 9, 1988, p. 3; Decima Research, “Health & Welfare Canada Brighter Futures T.V. Ad Recall” (Unpublished: 1993).

32. “Wilson Accused of Selling GST with Soviet-Style Propaganda,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 28, 1989, p. 18.

33. Susan Delacourt, “Budget Brochure Condemned,” Globe and Mail, March 19, 1991, p. A5.

34. Hugh Winsor, “Liberals Offer Plan to Boost Economy,” Globe and Mail, February 1, 1992, p. A4.

35. Derek Ferguson and Shawn McCarthy, “$1.1M Plan Urged to Sell Liberal Reform,” Ottawa Citizen, May 25, 1994, p. A3.

36. One advertisement claims that the proposed reforms “could put about $10 billion more into the post-secondary system over a ten-year period.” “It’s Time to Change our Social Programs” (Advertisement), The Charlatan, December 1, 1994, p. 7. Critics claim that the reforms are in fact intended to save the government $1.5 billion per year. Edward Greenspon, “Axworthy’s Math Shaky, Critics Say,” Globe and Mail, December 12, 1994, p. A6.

37. Nelson, Sultans of Sleaze, p. 90.

38. Russell, “Line Blurs.” Elision in original.

39. Gail Chiasson, “Study Shows Public Skeptical of Government Promotional Ads,” Marketing, November 29, 1982, p. 4.

40. Michael L. Rothschild, “Political Advertising: A Neglected Policy Issue in Marketing,” in Christopher H. Lovelock and Charles B. Weinberg, eds., Readings in Public and Nonprofit Marketing (Palo Alto: The Scientific Press, 1978), p. 54.

41. Kenneth G. Hardy, “Advocacy is Different from Product and Service Advertising,” in McDowall, ed., Advocacy Advertising, p. 49. The implication seems to be that the effectiveness of government policy advertising depends upon a sufficiently generalized stupidity among the Canadian population.

42. Allan Gregg argues that polls which indicated widespread ignorance of the details of the Charlottetown accord suggested that the electorate would be “a piece of blank paper on which you could write anything.” Hugh Winsor, “Learning The Lessons From the Ballot Box,” Globe and Mail, November 7, 1992, p. A4.

43. Decima Research, “Preliminary Results of the June 1990 Omnibus Survey” (Unpublished: 1990). Interestingly, Decima’s summary of the poll results gave the tabloid “high marks in all three of the areas necessary to a good communications vehicle,” but forgot to inform the client of its negative impact upon opinions! Decima Research, “Department of Finance: June Omni Results” (Unpublished: 1990).

44. W.T. Stanbury, Gerald J. Gorn, and Charles B. Weinberg, “Federal Advertising Expenditures,” in Bruce Doern, ed., How Ottawa Spends, 1983 (Toronto: James Lorimer), p. 157.

45. Geoffrey York, “Government Scraps Day-care Commitment,” Globe and Mail, February 27, 1992, p. A1. Of course, the polls could not prove that day care was not important for children, only that people did not feel it was important: the same public that needs educating can be treated as a Delphic oracle when convenient. The oracle, however, is invoked selectively. Though the government used poll data to justify breaking its day-care promise, 55 percent of respondents in one survey said that the government should “go ahead” and spend more on child care programs, while only 26 percent said more should be spent on equipment for the Armed Forces. The government must have felt that the same public which knew so much about the needs of children was ignorant of the needs of defence, as it decided to invest billions in new helicopters. Decima Research,”Decima Nationwide Survey: September 1990″ (Unpublished: 1990).

46. Doug Fisher, “Anti- Smoking Drive to be Largest Ever,” Ottawa Citizen, May 31, 1994, p. A1. Ironically, the previous government had spent $250,000 on advertisements stating that high taxes were “expected to reduce the number of teen-age smokers by 100 000 and prevent 25 000 of them from dying prematurely of tobacco-related illnesses.” “A Letter to All Canadians” (Advertisement), Montreal Gazette, June 21, 1991, p. A8.

47. “Anti-Cigarette Ads Up in Smoke,” Globe and Mail, April 21, 1994, p. 1. The same ad agency that hatched the “dud” campaign has been given responsibility for the new effort. Ron Eade, “Target: Tobacco,” Ottawa Citizen, January 3, 1995, p. A4.

48. Decima Research, “Health & Welfare Brighter Futures T.V. Ad Testing: September Omni” (Unpublished: 1992). A significant number of those who said they remembered the ad did not grasp its main message, offering “random and unrelated” guesses as to the content of the advertisement.

49. This, unfortunately, was less than the number who “remembered” ads that did not exist. Decima Research, “Health & Welfare Canada Brighter Futures T.V. Ad Recall” (Unpublished: 1993).

50. Michael L. Rothschild, “Marketing Communications in Nonbusiness Situations, Or Why It’s So Hard to Sell Brotherhood Like Soap,” Journal of Marketing 43 (Spring 1979), pp. 11-20; Paul N. Bloom and William D. Novelli, “Problems Applying Conventional Wisdom to Social Marketing Programs,” and Gary T. Ford and Robert E. Spekman, “Using Marketing Techniques to Increase Immunization Levels: A Field Experiment,” both in Michael P. Mokwa and Steven E. Permut, eds., Government Marketing: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1981).

51. Cited in McDowall, ed., Advocacy Advertising, p. 12.

52. Frances Russell, “Abuse of Advocacy Ads by Tories is Growing,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 6, 1989, p. 7.

53. Johnson, “Self-promotion.”

54. “Wilson Accused of Selling GST with Soviet-Style Propaganda,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 28, 1989, p. 18.

54. “On January 1, 1991, Canada’s Federal Sales Tax System Will Change” (Advertisement), Globe and Mail, August 26, 1989 pp. A10-A11. The advertisement led the Speaker to “remind everyone within the Public Service that we are a parliamentary democracy, not a so- called executive democracy nor a so-called administrative democracy.” John Fraser, “Speaker’s Ruling: Question of Privilege About Government Advertising Relating to Proposed Goods and Services Tax,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 12 (Winter 1989), p. 48.

56. Hugh Filman, “Constitutional Hearings Get Advertising Push,” Marketing, 4 November 1991, p. 1. Drew Fagan, “No NAFTA Delay, Wilson Tells Panel,” Globe and Mail, November 18, 1992, p. A8.

57. Asked how they would sell or oppose NAFTA, advertising executives stressed that “people pay attention more to emotion than to reason”: messages in support of NAFTA should thus be “warm and fuzzy,” while the opposition should “appeal to their emotions, and tell them that the Canada they love is being sold out.” Scott Feschuk, “The Ad World Takes On Free Trade,” Globe and Mail, August 22, 1992, p. B4.

58. David Bercuson, as cited in Maser, “Campaign to Make Us Feel Good.”

59. House of Commons, Debates, March 20, 1942, p. 1495.

60. Task Force, To Know and Be Known, p. 2:353.

61. Mark Hertsgaard, as cited in Nelson, Sultans of Sleaze, p. 62.

62. Stan Sutter, “CAF says Ottawa’s GST ads are deceptive,” Marketing, September 10, 1990, p. 10.

63. “On January 1, 1991, Canada’s Federal Sales Tax System Will Change” (Advertisement), Globe and Mail, August 26, 1989, pp. A10-A11.

64. House of Commons, Debates, September 14, 1992, p. 13069, May 14, 1992, p. 10730.

65. O.J. Firestone, The Public Persuader: Government Advertising (Toronto: Methuen, 1970), p. 104.

66. D.S.R. Leighton, “Federal Agencies Top List in Ad Spending,” Financial Post, October 5, 1974, p. A21.

67. Rob Wilson, “Ottawa Bought ‘Editorial’ as Well,” Marketing, February 27, 1984, p. 1.

68. “Ottawa Ad Deal Deemed Unacceptable,” Globe and Mail, May 27, 1986, p. A10.

69. “Ottawa Offers Ad to Newspapers If They Print Government Articles,” Globe and Mail, May 19, 1986, p. A3.

70. Human Resources Development’s leaked “Communications Strategy” recommends “distribution of community newspaper columns” as a “proactive media hit.”

71. “Watch This Space,” Globe and Mail, June 25, 1992, p. A8; Rheal Seguin, “Saying Yes To the No Side,” Globe and Mail, September 3, 1992, p. A1.

72. Apart from its other pedagogical virtues, the booklet also reinforces gender stereotypes: “The boys unanimously agree” to go on an adventure in a time machine, the girls all stay behind.

73. Community Programs Group, “Jr. Jays Magazine and Kids Club: The Background” (Toronto: Mimeographed, n.d.).

74. Health Promotion Directorate, “Policy on Partnerships” (Ottawa: Mimeographed, 1994).

75. It is interesting to note that a 1976 Health and Welfare plan to involve private companies in a “lifestyle” modification campaign was suspended, apparently because officials did not want “to get into bed with the wrong people.” John Dunlop, “The Drawback of Success,” Marketing, February 14, 1977, p. 4.

76. Health Canada is not alone in pursuing such partnerships: General Motors signed on to the Canada 125 campaign, earning the right to name Chevy Lumina, “the official car of Canada 125.” Vera Grayson, “Selling Canada,” Globe and Mail, September 16, 1992, p. A25. Can the “Burger King Speech From the Throne” be far behind?

77. Health Canada and the Dairy Bureau of Canada are now partners in an effort to “get the family talking at snack and mealtimes.” Not so long ago, they were adversaries on the question of the new Food Guide: a draft version of the guide would have reduced recommended milk intake for teenagers, but this was changed after dairy industry protests. “Food Guide Changed After Complaints, Papers Show,” Toronto Star, January 15, 1993, p. A2. Does the partner relationship affect the adversarial relationship, and if so, how?
The government also enters into less formal advertising “partnerships.” Though the “Yes” committee for the 1992 referendum was officially independent, the government did not feel it could rely upon the kindness of strangers to finance the campaign. A Conservative Senator was chief fund-raiser for the campaign, and tapped “the Conservative Party’s best friends, corporate Canada.” Ross Howard, “Nothing Escapes Partisanship Charges,” Globe and Mail, December 30, 1992, p. A4. In all, the Yes campaign’s corporate support was almost 800 times that enjoyed by the No forces. “Big Money Shouted Yes, But Canada Didn’t Listen,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 23, 1993, p.A4. The largest single contributor was the Canadian Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association, recent beneficiaries of increased patent protection. “Corporations Paid For Yes Committee,” Globe and Mail, April 2, 1993, p. A2.

78. Patrick Boyer, “Government Advertising: Some Wheat, Too Much Chaff,” Business Quarterly (Winter 1982), p. 37.

79. Office of the Auditor General, Annual Report 1992, sections 2.67ff; Annual Report 1986, section 2.138; Annual Report 1978, section 14.122.

80. Task Force, To Know and Be Known, p. 1:27.

81. Firestone, The Public Persuader, p. 4.

82. House of Commons, Hansard Written Questions, response to question 1,439, August 3, 1982 (Document 14988).

83. An opposition query about 1992 expenditures was answered with manifestly incomplete data. House of Commons, Sessional Paper, 343-Q-381, May 3, 1993.

84. “Time and space” expenditures include only spending to purchase radio or television time, or print media and billboard space, and exclude expenditures incurred in preparing advertisements.

85. “GM Heads Top 100 Advertisers,” Marketing, April 7, 1969, pp. 1, 53.

86. “Top 100 Spenders,” Marketing, April 12, 1993, p. 1.

87. Stanbury, Gorn, and Weinberg, “Federal Advertising Expenditures,” p. 164.

88. Stanbury, Gorn, and Weinberg identified the crown corporations in question as CN, Air Canada, and Petro-Canada. With the privatization of the latter two, CN and its offshoot, Via Rail, would appear to be the only corporations included in the 1992 measure but excluded in 1968. The Annual Summary, 1992 of Nielsen Marketing Research registers 1992 advertising expenditures of $5.4 million for Via Rail, and $1.4 million for CN.

89. Statistics Canada, National Income and Expenditure Accounts (13-001).

90. House of Commons, Debates, September 9, 1992, p. 12778.

91. “Federal Advertising Expenditures,” p. 149.