The federal government blanketed the internet with ads and bought pricey TV spots during playoff hockey as part a $2.5-million publicity blitz to promote a skills training program that doesn't yet exist, CBC News has learned.

TV commercials for the Canada Job Grant often ran twice per game last May during the widely watched Hockey Night in Canada NHL playoff broadcasts on CBC. There were ads on radio, as well.

“The Canada Job Grant will result in one important thing – a new or better job,” said the reassuring voice-over in the TV ads.

The problem: The program was never launched and is still on hold. The job grants were announced in the 2013 federal budget, but it called for an agreement with the provinces, which have so far refused to buy in.

Employment and Social Development Canada spent between $2.5 million and $2.6 million on the ad campaign. That figure excludes radio ads funded by the Finance Department.

“Spending millions of dollars to advertise a program that doesn't even exist is like flushing tax dollars down the toilet,” Liberal finance critic Scott Brison said.

$11M publicity push

CBC News has also learned that that advertising cash came from an $11-million fund set aside last year for Employment and Social Development Canada to promote the government as a job creator.

Before the Canada Job Grant TV ad went to air, the government paid Environics Research Group almost $70,000 to conduct market research. Focus groups saw a near-final version of the commercial.

Environics concluded: "The main message was consistently seen as positive and one that inspired hope…. In light of seeing the new ad for the Canada Job Grant, most now believe the Government of Canada is on the right track regarding skills training and the job market in Canada.”

“Their own research suggests that people get a positive impression of the ads,” Queen's University political science professor, Jonathan Rose said. “Whether that means they convey accurate information is another story.”

A government commissioned survey done post-campaign showed only two per cent of the 292 people polled who saw or heard the ad also caught the disclaimer that the program didn't yet exist. It also found only 18 per cent of viewers understood tax dollars paid for the advertising.

Ads ruled misleading

After receiving numerous viewer complaints, Advertising Standards Canada, the advertising industry's self-regulating body, ruled the TV commercial was misleading because the job grant program hadn't been approved.

“The commercial omitted relevant information,” ASC concluded in a report. The report didn’t name the government because the ad campaign was already over.

Economic Action Plan ads

The federal government has spent millions on advertisements about its economic programs. (Government of Canada)

The proposed job grants would give workers $15,000 each for training, with the provinces kicking in one-third of the cost. But provinces have yet to sign on, complaining the proposed program claws back $300 million in federal funds now used to help disadvantaged workers.

“We do not believe, the way the program is designed, that it will work,” Ontario's Kathleen Wynne said at a premiers meeting last July.

Quebec threatened to opt out. There’s no word yet on when an agreement might be reached.

Asked to comment on the ad campaign, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said, “The government of Canada’s top priorities are creating jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity.”

Harper blasted Liberals over ads

In his first question as opposition leader, in 2002, Stephen Harper took the then Liberal government to task over their advertising spending and the emerging sponsorship scandal.

“Will the prime minister stop the waste and abuse right now and order a freeze of all discretionary government advertising?” he asked in the House of Commons on May 21, 2002.

During its peak, the Liberal government spent $111 million on advertising, in 2002-2003. Harper's current Conservatives doled out $136.3 million in 2009-2010, their biggest advertising budget yet on record.

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