Tens of millions in federal ad spending skimps on public health, flu awareness

OTTAWA – The Conservative government is refusing to say how much of Health Canada’s $5.8-million advertising budget this fiscal year is being spent on public awareness of influenza.

But after days of prodding by The Canadian Press, the department did provide a list of flu-related communications efforts.

They include “fact sheets, posters and reference guides for Canadians and health care workers,” and “targeted outreach” through a coalition of provincial and private sector groups to promote vaccination.

There’s also a web site “brought to you by the government of Canada in collaboration with the provincial and territorial governments,” along with some online advertising.

Noticeably absent: a major TV campaign to promote mass influenza immunization, the kind of advertising that costs real money.

“Our marketing activities go beyond traditional advertising by using cost effective means to reach our target audiences,” Health Canada spokeswoman Sylwia Krzyszton said in an email, five days after The Canadian Press first asked about federal influenza communications.

Krzyszton would not provide a budget for the campaign.

It’s not a model shared by some other federal departments.

Minister Joe Oliver recently disclosed Natural Resources Canada will spend $40 million on campaigns promoting Canada’s energy resource sector — principally the oilsands — at home and abroad.

Ottawa also spent $2.5 million last spring on a televised campaign touting the Canada Job Grant — a proposed job-training program that remains inaccessible because it does not yet exist. The ads were part of Employment and Social Development Canada’s $11-million ad budget for 2013-14, much of which went toward TV campaigns on skilled trades and apprenticeship programs.

Industry Canada and Public Works more recently spent $9 million on an ad campaign that attacks the country’s major cellphone companies and appears aimed at whipping up public discontent about a lack of wireless competition.

And Public Safety Canada has just launched a major TV ad blitz that focuses on raising awareness about cyberbullying and its legal consequences.

“The total budget for the campaign is $4.5 million, which is consistent with other media campaigns of this size and duration,” Public Safety spokeswoman Josee Picard said in an email.

It’s no coincidence that tens of millions of tax dollars are available for high visibility ad campaigns on public safety, “responsible resource development,” job training and consumer cellphone complaints — all themes that just happen to reinforce the political messaging and brand of the governing Conservatives.

But it can sometimes be difficult to discern what the viewing public is supposed to do with the messages in these ads.

The Canada Job Grant campaign last summer earned a formal rebuke from Advertising Standards Canada, a self-regulating ad industry watchdog, after numerous public complaints.

The current $9-million telecom campaign, which depicts frustrated cellphone customers in a variety of familiar scenarios, also leads to questions about what viewers are to make of the message.

“Our policy to increase competition in the wireless sector is providing Canadians with more choices and access to the latest technology at lower prices,” Stefanie Power of Industry Canada responded in an email.

Wind Mobile, however, just pulled out of a government wireless spectrum auction, leading analysts to predict Canada’s big three telcos will snap up the available frequencies and little will change.

Some observers say the government has its priorities wrong, especially when it comes to the potential public-health risk posed by the flu.

“There is no infectious disease in Canada that predictably and preventably kills more people every year,” said Amir Attaran, the Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy at the University of Ottawa.

“Apparently the federal government thinks it is a low priority to prevent us dying, and it is a higher priority to get us riled up about our cellphones,” he continued.

“I cannot imagine what kind of cruel and small-minded person has that as a set of priorities, but that’s the message that’s sent.”

Attaran’s vitriol about government advertising practices isn’t unique.

The government’s own internal polling on the ubiquitous “economic action plan” advertising — which has cost taxpayers at least $113 million since 2009 — prompted reactions such as “propaganda” and a “waste of money.”

According to the National Post, Advertising Standards Canada received more than 20 consumer complaints about the Canada Job Grant ad.

And the Harper government’s political opponents are at their wit’s end.

“They have more damned nerve than a burglar,” said David McGuinty, the Liberal MP who has proposed a private member’s bill to screen all government advertising for partisanship, similar to an Ontario provincial program.

McGuinty accuses the government of “gaming the system using our tax revenues and putting out ads that are symmetrical to Conservative party ads — same colour, almost the same logo, same ‘look and feel,’ as they say in the advertising world.”

“They don’t seem to have an internal compass — check and balance — on this.”

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he’s heard from distraught constituents in his northern Ontario riding who are wondering where they should sign up for apprenticeships and job training.

Federal ads have become all about pushing the Conservatives’ “favourite hot buttons,” Angus said.

“The role of federal advertising should be letting Canadians know about services that exist. That should be the role of federal government advertising — not to stir the pot for the Conservative war room.”