Government hones oilsands message with focus groups

Focus-group testing on what the Harper government calls its Responsible Resource Development campaign found the advertising to be light on facts but uplifting and patriotic, according to a government-commissioned study.

Natural Resources Canada set to spend $9 million this year on energy sector advertising

The Canadian government is set to spend $9 million on advertising about Canada’s energy sector, which includes oil sands development, that it has honed with the help of focus groups. Here, an oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., is photographed from a helicopter. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Focus-group testing on what the Harper government calls its Responsible Resource Development campaign found the advertising to be light on facts but uplifting and patriotic, according to a government-commissioned study.

The fruits of that taxpayer-funded labour will again be on display this spring as a second wave of ads — designed to persuade Canadians of "the importance and impact of Canada's energy sector" — hits the air.

Natural Resources Canada has budgeted $9 million in the current 2012-13 fiscal year for ads that show a cross-section of resource industries in a job-friendly and environmentally sensitive light.

It's a carefully calibrated exercise.

Conservatives have been courting controversy for more than a year with a high-octane battle over pipeline development and changes to environmental laws designed to speed up major resource projects, including oil sands extraction.

Last summer, NRCan hired Leger Marketing to fine-tune the government's proposed advertising campaign. The project included a national telephone poll of 2,000 respondents and two separate rounds of focus groups.

"The government of Canada's natural resource policies are expected to continue to attract a high degree of public and media attention, particularly in the area of energy development," says the Leger study's introduction.

"This research will assist in the development of quality advertising designed to reach the maximum number of Canadians, with the most effective messaging to promote and encourage them to become better informed about the importance and impact of Canada's energy sector on Canada's economy and quality of life."

The Leger report, posted last week by Library and Archives Canada, details how original concepts for the ad campaign failed to impress a dozen focus groups spread across six Canadian cities.

Pre-campaign testing in cities from Prince Rupert, B.C., and Vancouver to Quebec City and Moncton, N.B., drew reactions that the ads were too focused on western Canada, didn't provide factual information and failed to deliver a coherent message.

Three new ad concepts were developed, with "significant modifications," and a second round of focus-group testing proved more positive.

"While some criticisms were raised concerning the lack of 'hard' facts, most participants remained positive and felt reassured, which contrasted with findings from the initial set of groups," said the Leger study.

"Participants readily understood the messages conveyed by these three ad concepts and mostly viewed them as uplifting, many spontaneously saying that it made them proud to be Canadian."

The focus-group methodology, Leger reported, included: "One-way mirror — There are observers representing the government who will be watching the discussion from behind the glass."

First ads appeared last fall

Natural Resources aired a heavy rotation of Responsible Resource Development ads last fall, each ending with a link to the long-running Conservative government's Economic Action Plan brand.

A spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in an email that "the advertisements provide specific facts about measures taken by the government to protect the environment, and other information on Responsible Resource Development."

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's office would not confirm that a second round of energy sector ads will begin in April. (Economic Action Plan/CP)

The government campaign was undermined earlier this month when the federal environment commissioner issued a report stating Ottawa isn't doing enough to monitor mining, offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing, nor are regulators equipped to deal with major oil spills and West Coast tanker traffic.

That's not the portrait in NRCan's ads.

As Leger's focus groups reported, once the original ad concepts had been tweaked: "The image of a field being brought back to its original state after exploitation was a strong one, as was the image of a scientist examining a test tube besides a running river. Both images conveyed the impression that efforts were being made to preserve this beauty, a strong source of pride for Canada."

NRCan would not confirm that a second round of ads will begin in April, as stated in the Leger report. Nor would it provide the cost of the campaign, although supplementary estimates show approvals for $9 million in ad spending by the department.

Opposition criticizes government’s ad spending

Opposition critics, who have long railed against what they see as a Conservative penchant for taxpayer-funded self-promotion, say the ads are offside.

Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP Treasury Board critic, pointed to the Responsible Canadian Energy campaign being run by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP. He called the CAPP and NRCan campaigns "carbon copies."

"If you put the ads next to each other — the government ads and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers ads -- what's going on is damage control," Ravignat said in an interview.

"We've got an industry which doesn't have the best reputation, we've got a government helping part of the industry in order to sell itself as responsible."

Both CAPP, an umbrella group representing major oil and gas producers, and NRCan officials insist there was no co-ordination of the two campaigns.

Political opponents said they can't understand how Ottawa justifies the ad spending when it is cutting programs, including environmental science.

"We're talking about spending hundreds of millions of dollars advertising how great Stephen Harper is to Canadians at a time when he tells us we can't afford a million a year to keep the Experimental Lakes area open," said Green party Leader Elizabeth May.

Liberal critic Roger Cuzner says he's concerned that a government that's supposed to be the industry watchdog has become its cheerleader.

"It's like leaving the dog in charge of the meat," said Cuzner.

"The government is becoming the proponent as well as the regulator."