An ad buy to promote a loan program for apprentices was one of the most expensive advertising campaigns under the previous Conservative government in 2014-15, newly released figures show.

The previous Conservative government advertised the Canada Apprentice Loan on television, radio, in print and online at a cost of $6.7 million, according to a new report published by the Department of Public Works and Government Services.

The apprenticeship ad, which ran last year, elicited a complaint to the industry watchdog from the Opposition New Democrats who said the ad was "misleading." 

The ad claimed that the Canadian economy would need "one million skilled tradesmen and women" over the next decade — but as CBC News reported on Jan. 11, 2015 independent forecasts and the government's own projections did not support that claim.

The loan program allows students registered in a Red Seal trade apprenticeship to apply for up to $4,000 per period of technical training.

The ad also claimed the loan was "interest-free," but the terms of repayment made it clear students have to pay the loan back with interest once the training is completed.

Janet Feasby, the vice-president of Advertising Standards Canada, said she could not provide CBC News with any information about the complaint filed by the NDP last year, citing confidentiality.

"We only publicly report on complaints upheld by the Standard Council in the form of online case summaries," Feasby said in an email on Friday.

If an ad buy ends, is withdrawn or amended before the complaint is heard by the council, then the name of the advertiser is not made public.

Ban 'taxpayer-funded partisan ads'

The Department of Employment and Social Development Canada told CBC News that 16,367 loans for apprentices were disbursed in 2015, with another 2,077 loans issued so far in 2016.

The Canada Apprentice Loan was a key Conservative promise of the 2014 budget estimated to cost $13 million in 2014-15 and $12 million in 2015-16.

The annual report on government of Canada advertising activities also shows the previous Conservative government spent $68.7 million in advertising in 2014-15, down from $75.2 million the year before.

Advertisement campaigns purchased by the Conservatives last year included ads to promote tax measures included in the budget, ads warning young Canadians against the dangers of smoking marijuana and ads to promote the upcoming 150th anniversary of Confederation. 

Other government ad buys in 2014-15 saw the Conservatives spend:

  • $8.6M on ads to promote military recruitment.
  • $8.1M on the Economic Action Plan.
  • $7.1M on anti-marijuana, anti-drugs.
  • $6.6M on Canada 150.
  • $5.6M on tax measures.
  • $3.3M on immigration programs.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which had been critical of the previous Conservative government's advertising, has been calling for an end to "taxpayer-funded partisan ads."

"I am at least pleased to see there was no spike in government advertising in an election year... but that still doesn't address whether all of these ads are even necessary," said Aaron Wudrick, the federal director of the CTF, in an email to CBC News.

"There are some instances (pressing public health or safety concerns for example) where government advertising might be appropriate, but simply notifying people about new government programs? It's not clear this is necessary or effective."

The new Liberal government made a campaign commitment to ban "partisan ads" and pledging to appoint an "advertising commissioner" to help the Auditor General oversee government advertising.

Wudrick said he is supportive of a system that would see the Auditor General vet government ads to ensure they are not partisan in nature and will be keeping an eye on the Liberals to see if they follow-through with their campaign promise.

"We'd also encourage them to put a limit on the total amount spent on ads each year," Wudrick said on Thursday.