Taxpayer-supported ad on-message with Conservative themes
Focus groups viewing a federal government test ad hear familiar Tory messages
When focus groups rounded up by the federal government viewed a recent Finance Department test ad promoting tax benefits, they found it short on detail. But it did evoke a warm feeling that families were getting support.
And that feel-good message is just about perfectly in line with slogans repeatedly touted by the Conservative Party.
Critics say this bolsters their case that Stephen Harper's Conservatives are using taxpayer-funded government advertising to promote their party and win votes in the upcoming election.
"They have so much gall. They have more damn nerve than a burglar," charges Liberal MP David McGuinty, who is campaigning for independent oversight of federal advertising.
Since November, viewers have been bombarded with government commercials trumpeting tax breaks. Ad funding of $13.5 million has been allocated to the Finance Department and the Canada Revenue Agency to promote the programs.
The Finance Department's first TV commercial ran late last year, featuring various tax perks while depicting happy families hard at work.
A new report prepared by NRG Research Group for the government concluded that when focus groups assessed an early test version of the ad, "it clearly communicated a message that the government has various measures in place to help Canadian families and relieve their tax burden" (emphasis added).
The Conservatives' 2011 election platform stated a similar message: "We need to continue reducing the tax burden to help Canadians care for their families" (emphasis added).
The focus group report also stated that "the one phrase that consistently came up to describe the main message associated with this advertising was 'support for families.'"
"Supporting families" is one of the Conservative Party's main platform policies. The party's website has an entire page devoted to the concept, which includes highlighting its "low-tax plan."
Eighty-nine participants from across the country were recruited to evaluate the test ad in October.
Election campaign commercial?
That's called cheating.-— David McGuinty, Liberal MP
For the Liberal MP McGuinty, the similar messages are no coincidence and show the Harper government is using public funds to jump-start the Conservatives' election campaign.
The Finance Department will continue its tax break ads until Aug. 2, barely 2½ months before the October federal election.
"That's called cheating," says McGuinty. "It's all very deliberate. Mr. Harper is doing whatever he can to commandeer public resources to condition the Canadian people, to try and increase his chances for electoral success on Oct. 19."
The fact that focus groups identified a message remarkably similar to one touted by the Conservative Party also raises eyebrows for political scientist Alex Marland.
"You're using public monies to pay for a slogan that could potentially become your election slogan. Obviously that's some cause for concern," says the Memorial University professor, who is about to publish a book about brand messaging and government advertising.
But Marland adds that the government has broken no rules by promoting measures that matter to the Conservative Party and to many Canadians. "It's not wrong, it's not illegal, it just raises some questions," he says.
When asked about the similar messaging, the Finance Department would only talk about the benefits of the advertising. "It is important that families and seniors be made aware of the new [tax] measures and how they can take advantage of them," says spokesman David Barnabe in an email to CBC News.
Last fiscal year, Ottawa spent $75.2 million in advertising, up from $69 million the previous year.
Harper's government has continually come under fire for allegedly spending millions of taxpayer dollars on ads boosting the party rather than informing Canadians about important programs.
According to the current focus group report, participants who viewed the concept ad about tax measures didn't glean much from it beyond a positive message about tax breaks and the government.
"Participants clearly understood the main message and felt the federal government was focused on helping individuals and families through a variety of tax cuts," stated the report.
But it went on to explain that participants did not necessarily understand each specific tax credit or how they worked. "Overall, participants wanted to see precise information on proposed measures, especially the dollar amounts involved," it concluded.
"What they got is the very partisan message that this government wants to convey through public advertising," says Mathieu Ravignat, federal NDP treasury board critic.
"What they didn't get is what public advertising is really for, and that is to inform you and give you details with regards to changing of government programming."
The Finance Department emphasized that focus groups felt they got a clear message from the ad, that the government was helping relieve families of their tax burdens. Spokesman Barnabe added, "Participants generally appreciated being provided with information regarding these measures."
Hire a referee
Liberal MP McGuinty says the only way to ensure government advertising isn't tainted by politics is to appoint an independent advertising commissioner to ensure federal ads are non-partisan.
He's sponsoring a private member's bill that would legislate this. "We need a good referee," he says.
Political scientist Marland says that, even before a referee is appointed, Canada needs to establish a set of rules about government advertising. "What we need as a society is a list of things we would expect [an appointed body] to look at."
Until the rules of the game are established, he says, the debate will continue about whether or not government ads are abusing taxpayer money.