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Surveys suggest Canadians growing weary of ads for Economic Action Plan

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OTTAWA - Canadians may be growing weary of — even hostile to — all those Economic Action Plan ads the Harper government has been pumping out for the last four years.

Eight polls the Finance Department commissioned between 2009 and 2012 suggest the TV, radio, print and Internet ads are starting to fizzle — and annoying some people.

The most-recently released survey has respondents calling the material "propaganda" and a "waste of money," while fewer people than ever are taking any action after viewing the ads.

The Finance Department, meanwhile, continues to air the ads, with the latest TV campaign kicking off Monday and running to April 30.

Under federal policy, departments must conduct surveys after ad campaigns to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent.

Finance Canada has been a leader in Economic Action Plan advertising after coining the phrase for the landmark recession-fighting budget of January 2009.

The plan logo with stylized arrows and blue background has been stamped on every budget since. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has said the 2013 budget will be the next chapter of the so-called EAP.

The eight surveys, commissioned from four polling firms for almost $300,000, have asked the same core questions of random samples of 1,000 people contacted by telephone.

The Harper government has been especially keen to know whether the "call to action" in all the ads has been heeded. For example, have Canadians checked out, the splashy website with pictures of the prime minister? Or signed up for a grant program?

The early surveys show as many as a quarter of those who remembered seeing the ads in 2009 took some action, such as registering for a home renovation credit.

But that number steadily declined in 2010 and 2011, and by April 2012 only about seven per cent of people who said they saw the ads did something as a result.

One of the actions described by respondents in last year's survey included "expressed my disbelief." Only six individuals who saw the ads said they went to the EAP website, a relatively low uptake that has been consistent over four years.

The very first Economic Action Plan television ads in early 2009 were recalled by 45 per cent of those later polled by Ipsos-Reid, the highest level in the eight polls.

The percentage for recall of the TV ads has since been in decline, hitting about 33 per cent in the spring of 2012, the last published poll.

And a Privy Council Office analysis of the 2012 numbers shows that when people were quizzed about the actual content of the TV ads, only 20 per cent could describe them in any detail. That suggests the campaign was connecting with only one in five Canadians.

The spring 2012 television campaign, which followed an austerity budget, cost the Finance Department $3.8 million, plus another $1.1 million for production of the ads themselves. Critics questioned the spending of ad money in a time a belt-tightening, but officials said government has a responsibility to communicate with Canadians.

The Harper government continues to buy ad time for its Economic Action Plan, including for Super Bowl Sunday football just last month, when Human Resources and Skills Development bought a series of pre-game ads featuring the EAP logo. The coming 10-week ad campaign by the Finance Department, which launches Monday, will reprise last fall's version.

The NDP's finance critic says the "feel-good" ads are clearly intended to boost the government's popularity rather than inform Canadians.

"They don't reflect people's daily experience," MP Peggy Nash said in an interview.

"And at a time when the government says it wants to be fiscally prudent, it's wasting huge sums of money on these ads for projects that have already been long finished. What is the point?"

But a spokesman for the Finance Department defends the ads, saying "in an uncertain global economy it is important that Canadians are aware of the measures and programs in the EAP and how they will lead to jobs, growth and long-term prosperity."

"Public opinion research consistently reveals that Canadians want government to inform them of the nature, availability and ways to access benefits and programs," said David Barnabe.

Finance Canada's post-advertising polls are difficult to decipher from April 2010 forward, when the posted results included only tables of data without any analysis.

Since 2006, Library and Archives Canada has posted on a central website "final reports of all public opinion research for which a contract was awarded" within about six months of their creation.

But if the analysis is carried out within the federal bureaucracy, and not by a polling firm, it need not be posted because there was no contract.

Since April 2010, the Privy Council Office has been conducting in-house analysis of all government-commissioned surveys "to save on cost and standardize reports," says a spokesman.

The Finance Department alone has spent well over $25 million in Economic Action Plan ads since 2009, in addition to tens of millions of EAP ad spending by other departments. The government reported $52.3 million in total EAP ad spending in 2009-10, but has not provided annual totals in the years since then as ad spending declined.

The internal Privy Council Office analysis of the April 2012 post-advertising survey may provide a clue to the Harper government's continued use of EAP ads.

The analysis, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, notes that among those who had not seen the ads, 42 per cent approved of the overall performance of the government.

But the number rises to 47 per cent among those who had seen the TV spots, a five-percentage-point boost in popularity attributed to the advertising campaign.

— with files from Bruce Cheadle

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