When political ads look and sound like news

It's no accident when campaign ads mimic real news.

Fake news or politics as usual? Ambiguous Alberta ads blur the lines

Shaping Alberta's Future advertises UCP leader Jason Kenney in a Nov. 20 ad around the front section of the Edmonton Journal. (Dave Cournoyer/Twitter)

You hear Glen from Lethbridge shouting to a radio host about how mad he is over the carbon tax.

"I did the math and it sucks. I'm paying six hundred dollars more in taxes!" Glen yells through the phone.

But in reality, there is no Glen from Lethbridge.

Glen is a character in an advertisement produced by Shaping Alberta's Future, which calls itself "the leading third-party funding organization of Alberta's conservative movement."

A series of talk-show-format ads run on 630 CHED, Sonic 102.9, 102.3 NOW! and CISN Country.

Stephen Carter, a political strategist and president of QED marketing in Calgary, said it's no accident that the ads sound similar to a broadcast program.

"Those ads don't sound out of place," Carter said. "The only thing that makes them different is that it's not the radio hosts that are employed by the radio stations.

"That's a technique that's tried and true. It's been done."

"[There's] an auto parts store that does the exact same format. And the reason is, people listen when they think that the ad is actually the call-in show," he said.

Shaping Alberta's Future did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

Not long ago you'd say no self-respecting media organization would allow its pages or its airwaves to be used in a way that would be misleading to its consumers, and now maybe some of that self-respect is being lost.- Paul Adams, Carleton University

Some radio stations running the call-in show ad include a disclaimer to clarify that the stations do not endorse the views in the advertisement.

Rob Birk, a creative director with Corus Entertainment, the company that owns 630 CHED and CISN Country, said the company's code of ethics requires stations to clarify that they are non-partisan and do not necessarily endorse any political advertising they broadcast.

But Elections Alberta, the office that oversees provincial election legislation, doesn't require broadcasters to include a disclaimer.  

"Whatever medium it's being broadcast on is putting that disclaimer on," said Drew Westwater, Elections Alberta's deputy chief electoral officer.

"That's not from us, that's from them," Westwater said, "because they've probably got calls thinking they were broadcasting that message."

Elections Alberta has received dozens of calls about the radio ads, Westwater said. He didn't characterize the calls as complaints, but said the callers were interested in finding out if the ads were within the rules.

Birk, with Corus Entertainment, said he hasn't received any direct complaints about the ads.

Designed to look like news

On Nov. 20, Shaping Alberta's Future printed an advertisement in the Edmonton Journal.

A four-page ad wrapped around the front section of the newspaper featured a photograph of a smiling Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party, along with the words, "The Right Choice for Alberta."

Political blogger Dave Cournoyer said when he saw the ad, he felt he understood its intent.

"It's definitely meant to look like it is news coverage, like it is an endorsement of Jason Kenney," Cournoyer said.

Carter, who worked on Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's first campaign, said it's nothing new for political candidates to buy wrap ads in newspapers. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson has used them.

Carter said his concern is a lack of accountability when ads come from third-party advertisers or political action committees (PACs) — groups that are not affiliated directly with the candidate but can still publicly promote issues on his behalf.

"There is no relationship between Shaping Alberta's Future and the voter, there is no relationship at all," Carter said, "so it just absolutely hurts the electoral system."

He said that when advertising is purchased by PACs instead of political parties, candidates and parties have "just completely eroded" their responsibilities, he said.

Ads can come at a cost, prof says

Paul Adams, an associate professor at Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, said running ads that don't clearly distinguish between news and marketing hurts an outlet's reputation.

"In the long term, I think it's destructive of the credibility of the media if people tune in and they literally don't know who is talking to them," said Adams.

"Not long ago you'd say no self-respecting media organization would allow its pages or its airwaves to be used in a way that would be misleading to its consumers, and now maybe some of that self-respect is being lost as people are grubbing for ad dollars, as they increasingly are."

The Nov. 20 Edmonton Journal ad from Shaping Alberta's Future also quoted the newspaper's former columnist, political journalist Graham Thomson.

Thomson took to Twitter to say that the quote, about the NDP government's handling of Alberta's deficit, didn't properly reflect the full context of his column.

"I was not happy with it," he told CBC.

Thomson said a representative from Postmedia, which owns the Journal, personally apologized and told him his work would not be quoted in subsequent political ads. Journal editor-in-chief Mark Iype declined comment.

This week, Shaping Alberta's Future ran another wrap ad in the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald.