Remembrance Day ad gets mixed reviews for making test audience 'feel guilty'

Veterans Affairs plans to launch a new ad ahead of Remembrance Day 2018, but it has struggled to craft a campaign that doesn't make people "feel guilty" or come off as a recruitment pitch, according to the in-house testing results.

Many participants 'did not recognize In Flanders Fields,' notes the report

A man touches the helmet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after laying a poppy following the National Remembrance Day Ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Veterans Affairs plans to launch a new campaign ahead of this year's ceremony. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Veterans Affairs plans to launch a new ad ahead of Remembrance Day 2018, but it has struggled to craft a campaign that doesn't make people "feel guilty" or come off as a recruitment pitch, according to the in-house testing results.

The department hired Sage Research Corporation for $62,969 to run ad campaign concepts past some focus groups earlier this year to help choose a new campaign to launch in the lead up to Remembrance Day.

This year's Nov. 11 ceremonies will commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, the 10th anniversary of the first National Peacekeepers Day and 100 years since the end of the First World War.

The new ad is supposed to act as "a centrepiece" for the 2018 commemorations, notes the firm's analysis, which was recently posted online.

"As this is a new campaign, it is critical that the department ensure that the ad campaign will resonate with intended audiences," says the report's preamble. 

The research firm showed three 30-second ads to participants, titled "The Torch," "Step up," and "Our Freedom."

"The Torch" cuts between scenes of people laying poppies on a cenotaph and close-ups of faces, while a verse from the war poemIn Flanders Fields is read aloud in sombre tones.

While it packed an emotional wallop for those who know John McCrae's 1915 poem, "at least half the participants in the English sessions did not recognize In Flanders Fields, nor did any of the Montreal participants."

"Some participants said that the ad made them feel guilty, which they found off-putting," read Sage's analysis.

The "Step up" ad, meanwhile, didn't play well with participants in the age 18-34 bracket.

That ad campaign uses close-up images of veterans from the two world wars and more recent conflicts and urges Canadians to "step up" and remember veterans.

But many of the focus group participants had a problem with one line in the ad script: "We owe them everything we have as Canadians."

"There was a strong feeling that this was an overstatement: that is, unquestionably we owe veterans a great deal but not 'everything' – there have been many other forces at play that make Canada what it is today," the researchers wrote.

Some participants, they added, "perceived the ad to be more of a recruiting ad than an ad about remembrance."

The focus groups also criticized the ad for under-representing women in uniform.

A third ad —"Our Freedom" — showcased Canadians expressing gratitude for modern freedoms ("Thanks to them, I am free. Free to say what needs to be said") and ended with an plea to "remember those who fought for freedom" on Nov. 11.

Researchers felt this ad was the one most likely to increase involvement in Remembrance Day activities.

"The message was perceived to be positive and uplifting. While Remembrance Day is in some ways a sad day, the message of this ad concept was also that it should be a day on which Canadians are not only thankful but also celebrate the choices and privileges we have," notes the report.

However, Sage noted one major fault with the concept: the test audience didn't get that the ad was about veterans and Remembrance Day.

"A main issue with the ad was that on first viewing, the purpose of the ad was unclear," they said.

A spokesperson for the department said the testing results are still being considered and the ads will be produced over the coming weeks.

"The 2018 Remembrance campaign will help to raise the profile of the brave men and women in uniform who have served Canada," said Emily Gauthier in an email.

Eight focus groups of about eight to nine respondents reviewed the ads in March of this year in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. The groups were split by age, with an 18-34 group and a 35-and-over group. Participants were paid $100 for their efforts.