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Calling all mad men: Harper government seeks bids for new 'action plan' ads

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during an announcement on Friday, May 3, 2013 in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Clement Allard

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during an announcement on Friday, May 3, 2013 in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Clement Allard

OTTAWA - The Harper government is looking for a creative contractor to continue those feel-good "economic action plan" ads that have blanketed the airwaves for the past four years.

A new call for tenders says the winning advertising firm will spend up to the next three years handling ads on TV, radio, theatre screens and print and digital media.

The ads are supposed "to inform Canadians about key initiatives, programs and benefits under Economic Action Plan 2013, which may include advertising Budget 2014," says the statement of work issued Friday by Public Works.

"The advertising will also serve to strengthen ongoing consumer confidence in the Canadian economy and the direction of the country."

The winning firm is also required to "design, articulate, manage and implement the strategy for the EAP brand to ensure that it effectively relates and motivates the target audience."

The initial contract runs until March 31, 2014, with two one-year options that would take the advertising to the end of March 2016. Under Canada's fixed election date law, voters must go to the polls in 2015.

The "economic action plan" — first used to brand Ottawa's big-spending 2009 stimulus budget during a global economic downturn — has been criticized almost from the get-go as a thinly veiled exercise in taxpayer-funded Conservative promotion.

The government has spent more than $100 million since 2009 promoting the "economic action plan" brand.

The campaign promotes wished-for results — a familiar refrain of jobs, growth and prosperity — as delivered goods while directing anyone seeking actual program information to a government website, where they find more promotional material.

EAP radio ads that are currently airing end with a disclaimer — "subject to parliamentary approval" — because the measures being promoted are effectively proposals, not yet law.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the 2013 budget includes measures for job grants, investments in infrastructure and manufacturing and a small business EI hiring credit, "among other things, and the government will continue to promote these initiatives," Andrew MacDougall wrote in an email.

Jonathan Rose, an expert in political communication at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said the latest advertising tender suggests long-standing criticisms of the campaign will continue.

Rose serves as an external adviser to the Ontario auditor general's office, which since 2004 has overseen all provincial government advertising to ensure it is informative, fact-based and non-partisan.

He said all governments say their ad campaigns are designed to "inform," because providing civic education is a legitimate function.

"The problem is that the present EAP ads provide no real information," Rose said in email after examining parts of the new tender.

"Moreover, an ad campaign which seeks to 'strengthen confidence in ... the direction of the country' is one which clearly is not well thought out or has clear, measurable goals."

Rose was even more critical of the tender's call for a strategy on the "EAP brand" that "motivates the target audience."

"If there was any euphemism for supporting the Conservative party, surely this is it," he said. "The fact that the EAP is a brand suggests how entrenched this campaign is for the government."

Government polling on the ad campaign last April found that only six out of 1,000 respondents went to the actionplan.gc.ca website for more information. Other respondents called the ads "propaganda" and a "waste of money."

But a follow-up analysis by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that supports the prime minister, also found those who saw the ads were more likely to approve of the overall performance of the government.

Mathieu Ravignat, NDP's treasury board critic, called the ads "completely inappropriate."

"Government advertising really should be about informing Canadians about changes to programs and services," Ravignat said.

"It shouldn't be about selling a particular policy to the public. It seems clear that we're going to get more of the same."

Ravignat called it galling that the government is "making assumptions on what are appropriate advertisements before the budget's actually passed."

But MacDougall, Harper's spokesman, responded that "just because the opposition chooses to vote against all of our Economic Action Plan initiatives doesn't mean they get to vote against the government's duty to inform Canadians of the programs and benefits available to them."

In 2011-12, Ottawa's advertising budget was $78.5 million, including almost $21 million on "economic action plan" ads. The government spent $23 million on EAP ads in 2010-11 out of a budget of $83.3 million, and in 2009-10 the action plan campaign gobbled up $53.2 million of the $136.3-million advertising budget.

Final figures for 2012-13 have not been released, but cabinet approved $16 million for EAP ads in the first quarter of the last fiscal year alone — bringing the four-year total on economic action plan promotion to at least $113 million.

"The value for money is very low," said Ravignat. "The amount of money they've spent is very high. It's worrying."

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