Government advertisers are free to blatantly misrepresent services or programs without public censure from the ad industry's self-regulatory watchdog, so long as they stop airing the offending ads after citizens complain.
The Conservative government's $2.5 million campaign last spring to promote the Canada Jobs Grant, a proposed job-training program that still doesn't exist almost a year later, is a case in point.
Both Global News and PostMedia News have revealed that Advertising Standards Canada, the "national, not-for-profit, advertising self-regulatory body," chided the government for the misleading ads, which were in heavy rotation last spring — including during pricey NHL playoff telecasts.
Not so fast, says a spokeswoman for the self-regulatory council.
"No, I can't," confirm the sanction, Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards with the council, said in an interview Friday.
Not always identified
The council publicly posts complaint reports, but there are two different ways of handling the disclosure, she said.
Some transgressors are identified, others are not.
If an advertiser pulls or changes an ad after people complain to the council, they don't get publicly identified.
"If the ad was not withdrawn or amended until after the council decision, that's when the advertiser is identified," said Feasby.
And so it is that a posting on Advertising Standards Canada's website shows that a "service provider" with a national television campaign advertising "a new program of services" attracted 22 complaints last year.
"To the council, the commercial conveyed the general impression that the services were universally accessible," says the posting. "In fact, they would not be accessible for some time."
The watchdog concluded that the commercial omitted relevant information.
But since the advertiser agreed to withdraw the ad, the offending party was never named.
Only a leak to Global News tipped anyone that the government of Canada had been busted.
Council won't confirm complaints
Global's report, released in the August doldrums and widely overlooked, quoted a leaked letter from the council to the federal department that sounded the same concerns as the anonymous posting currently on the ASC web site.
"In reality, the implementation of this program is not imminent, and the process of obtaining such agreement may well take a considerable length of time if, in fact, an accord with the provinces and territories (on the grant proposal) is even possible," said the letter leaked to Global. It was signed by Janet Feasby.
Yet when The Canadian Press called Advertising Standards Canada last month, Feasby would not even divulge whether the council had ever received a single complaint about the Canada Jobs Grant ad.
NDP slams 'cloak of anonymity'
Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP Treasury Board critic, says the industry watchdog should not be providing the government a cloak of anonymity.
"The council should come forward with specific information about what happened in this case so that Canadians can know how their tax dollars were abused," he said.
But others argue the incident highlights the need for dedicated public oversight of federal government advertising.
"What it does suggest is that while industry regulation might work for commercial advertisers, it does not work for government advertising," said political scientist Jonathan Rose, an expert in political advertising at Queen's University.
"Oversight needs to come from a neutral, non-partisan entity to ensure transparency. And that entity needs to be accountable to Parliament, not an industry umbrella group."
The Advertising Standards Canada web site states that it is "committed to fostering community confidence in advertising and to ensuring the integrity and viability of advertising in Canada through responsible industry self-regulation."
"Reporting on consumer complaints about advertising is an integral part of the advertising industry's commitment to an objective and transparent consumer complaint process," states the council.
Process 'quick and expedient'
Feasby makes no apologies for the way the council handles problematic advertising.
The process gives consumers "a quick and expedient way of having complaints dealt with about ads," she said.
"The sole remedy under our code if an ad is found to contravene the code is to have the ad removed or amended appropriately. That's what consumers want and that's what is provided."