As It Happens

Hear from the man behind the decision to pull pro-Bernier anti-immigration billboards

The president of a major Canadian billboard company says he will "seriously debate" taking any political ads in the future after the firestorm over anti-immigration signs featuring People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier.

Pattison president says backlash from ad has been 'very, very difficult' on his employees

A billboard featuring the portrait of People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier and its message 'Say NO to Mass Immigration' on display in Toronto. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)
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The president of a major Canadian billboard company says he will "seriously debate" taking any political ads in the future after the firestorm over anti-immigration signs featuring People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier.

That's because his employees at Pattison Outdoor Advertising have been fielding angry and vitriolic phone calls from people all over the country — both for running the billboards, and for eventually taking them down.

The national campaign, which features Bernier's face and the words "Say NO to mass immigration," drew widespread criticism from residents and political leaders across Canada. Bernier blamed a "totalitarian leftist mob" for Pattison's decision to pull them.

The company behind the third-party election ads, True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp., distanced itself from them on Monday, saying: "We completely disavow any sympathy with or support for the views expressed by donors who paid for and selected the content of their advertising."

Randy Otto, president of Pattison Outdoor Advertising, which owns the billboard network, says his company and his staff should never have been put in the middle of this contentious issue. Here is part of his conversation on Monday with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

What have these past few days been like for you and your employees?

It's been a bit of a firestorm with a lot of public opinion on both sides of this.

Can you describe the backlash? The kind of things you've been hearing?

We've gotten some very strongly worded and opinionated calls from members of the public who want to express their opinion as it relates to the messaging on the ad, and in some cases feel that, you know, Pattison is either advocating for the message, or in the case of our decision to remove the ads, advocating against the message.

What were the initial remarks like from the members of the public who were calling you about the ad?

The initial response was from members feeling that the message on the ad was inappropriate and un-Canadian.

What kind of calls are you getting now?

Now we're getting calls from people who have a very strong opinion in favour of the ad and feel that we are infringing on the public's right to freedom of expression by having the ads removed.

What kind of tone, what kind of message are you hearing from those people?

Most of the calls that I've received have been very, very emotional, very strong worded and, in some cases, very [vitriolic] in the language that they used to speak to me.

What has this been like for your staff?

Particularly for my staff it's been very, very difficult. Many of them got through the weekend not really knowing about the issue that was going on in social media. And so they came into their offices [Monday] morning and started fielding calls from people who had very strongly worded messages for them and the company.

I've spoken to one receptionist. I just simply said, "If people are swearing, hang up. You don't need to be abused by people's language in this matter."

Bernier blamed a 'leftist and totalitarian mob' for Pattison's decision to remove anti-immigration billboards featuring his image. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

When you were first approached by True North Strong & Free Advertising Corporation, the third-party organization that commissioned these ads, what was your reaction?

We spoke to them and said that in order for us to run them, that we would require them to effectively take ownership by clearly identifying who they were, who was the advocate for this message and how could they be contacted.

[We] had every expectation that we could ... redirect the public to them for this discussion to happen.

Unfortunately, they did not take calls and they did not speak to the press and did not speak to the issue on social media through until Sunday evening, at which point I made the decision to take the ads down.

Just the fact, though, that you were insisting that this third party, True North Strong & Free Advertising, would respond if there was a backlash suggests to me you were anticipating a backlash.

I was expecting them to speak to their point of view. We do put up advocacy advertising. It's not the first time this has happened. And we expect that we can direct the public concerns about the message to the messenger, not to the outdoor company.

But the fact that you felt that was so important, does that not suggest that you had concerns about the content of the ad?

I guess the question is: Should I have seen the ad and said we just don't run it because we think it's controversial?

Well, do you think you should have not run it?

I question the decision at this point given what's happened over the past five days. 

Cyclists pass one of the controversial billboards in Toronto. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

You actually issued two statements around this. First of all, you said that there was nothing about the ads that violates the ad standards of Canada code, that you were a neutral party in all of this. And yet now you are taking them down. What changed?

The absence of the advocacy company, True North, the People's Party or Mr. Bernier speaking to the public about the message.

What happened, clearly by Sunday evening, was that the public was directing their concerns to us and not to the people they should be speaking to — the people who paid for the ads.

So had the advocacy group that paid for the ads or had Mr. Bernier spoken to this, would the ad still be up?

I think if they would have taken ownership of them, I might have made a different decision, yes.

You have said you will be reviewing your policies because of this. What will you do next time a potential client approaches you about a political ad?

We will seriously debate whether we would want to take the ad at all, no matter what the message.

So given how close we are to a federal election, are you in a position now that you may end up refusing all political ads?

I can only tell you that we have a review group that looks at these and I'll be meeting with them in the coming days to discuss our position on advocacy and political advertising in the future.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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