$24M ad campaign for Keystone pipeline had little impact: survey

Barely 1 in 10 Americans who saw a taxpayer-funded $24 million ad campaign understood it was aimed at winning over their support for Keystone XL, a government survey reveals.

Friendly government advertising on Washington subways

9 years ago
Duration 1:14
Natural Resources Canada blanketed Washington subway stations with friendly ads promoting Canadian oil. This round of ads ran in Metro Center from Dec. 31 to mid-February

America and Canada are friends. That’s the main message Americans got from phase one of the federal government's multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote Canadian oil in Washington and drum up support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

That’s no surprise to some Washington-based Canada-U.S. relations experts who say the first leg of the campaign was too polite and, well, too Canadian to have any real effect.

The ads were part of a $24 million, taxpayer-funded international blitz to boost energy exports by convincing policy makers that "Canada is a secure, reliable, and responsible supplier of crude oil" and other resources, said Jacinthe Perras, a spokesperson with the Department of Natural Resources.

It was too Canadian; it was very polite … just reminding us, by the way, we’re your friends- Christopher Sands, specialist in U.S.-Canada relations

The ongoing campaign began quietly in May 2013 with ads in U.S. political publications and online and then went bold, plastering Washington bus stops and subway stations for weeks at a time.

Although ads blanketed subway floors and pillars, the message was more subtle, praising Canada as a friendly and responsible energy producer. One popular ad featured two young girls — one with an American flag, her neighbour with a Canadian flag — and the headline: "America and Canada: Friends and Neighbors." Another showed workers piecing together a pipeline, with the headline: “America and Canada: Standing together for energy independence.”

A mandatory government-commissioned survey shows that 17 per cent of Americans surveyed who saw at least one ad thought the campaign was all about America’s friendship with Canada. Only 11 per cent thought it was about the Keystone pipeline. When it came to trumpeting our oil, only five per cent thought the ads were meant to boost Canada as a major energy supplier and just three per cent thought the objective was to promote Canadian oil. The survey canvassed 750 subway-goers in Washington earlier this year.

Message was unclear

When asked to rate the success of its campaign, Natural Resources said many of those surveyed remembered the ads and the intended messages — but it didn't detail what those intended messages were. The department also pointed out that 37 per cent of respondents understood that the Canadian government produced the ads. But it didn’t mention that another 20 per cent thought the U.S. government was behind the campaign. The department also said the online campaign got lots of clicks from its target audience.

Christopher Sands specializes in U.S.-Canada relations at the Hudson Institute in Washington.  He said the poll results reinforce his opinion that the campaign’s message was weak. "It was too Canadian; it was very polite. You were not saying anything particularly controversial, just reminding us, by the way, we’re your friends."

David Biette also believes the ads missed their mark. "Buy our oil because we’re nice people — that doesn't fly," said the director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington. "My take was the Canadian government wanted to get American policy makers to realize that Canadian oil was important to the American economy and that we should therefore build the Keystone pipeline. But that was never said."

Biette said Americans expect more aggressive, to-the-point advertising. He added, the issue down south is "not about Canada. It’s about the way the oilsands is [manufactured]."

Biette said Ottawa also failed on the environmental message. A paltry two per cent thought the ads were about improving the environment. Canada is still waiting for the U.S. to approve the Keystone pipeline which would carry crude from Canadian oilsands to American refineries. President Obama has said he wouldn’t give the project a thumbs-up if the project would exacerbate carbon pollution.

Second phase starts soon

As part of its campaign, the Conservative government recently ran a full-page ad inside the back cover of The New Yorker. It showed a pristine green valley with a river running through it and the headline: "America and Canada have the same greenhouse gas reduction targets."

Biette said the ad doesn’t say much more than, "look, we’re peaceful and green, and we’re friends, and we have similar policies and we’re your best energy partner." He said the ad would have been more effective if it promoted an aggressive Canadian campaign to reduce greenhouse gases. But then he added, "Canada can’t say it because Canada’s not doing it."

The ad does state, in finer print: "Canada and America are committed to the same 17 per cent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020." But that’s a target, not an achievement. And a recent Environment Canada report revealed that Canada probably doesn’t have a hope of reaching its goal.

Natural Resources is now planning phase two of its U.S. advertising campaign. It’s remaining tight-lipped about the details. But the government has a tough act to follow: singer Willie Nelson is gearing up for an anti-Keystone concert in a Nebraska cornfield next month.