Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politicians should not decide if ads are political

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Chances are, you've seen them. Chances are, you're probably sick of them -- and plenty of people are saying exactly the same thing.

In 2009-10, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government spent $53.2 million advertising its Economic Action Plan using feel-good, upbeat, ethnically diverse ads.

In 2010-11, it was $23 million. In 2011-12, it was $21 million.

And this year, even after $97 million spent in three years to have the government tell us what a good job it's doing, the spending goes on.

"An April 2012 poll on the Economic Action Plan ads found respondents calling them 'propaganda' and a 'waste of money,' with only six individuals among the 1,000 surveyed saying they went to the actionplan.gc.ca website for more information," Maclean's magazine reported last week.

The Ottawa Citizen was even more blunt, citing polling done by Forum Research: "Respondents to the poll most often characterized the campaign as political advertising for the Conservative party (30 per cent), while 24 per cent called them 'a waste of taxpayers' money' and 12 per cent denounced them as 'more commercial junk.' "

Even the federal government knows how badly the ads are thought of: After all, it's spent $300,000 more on eight studies surveying people's responses to the ads. And at no time was that more clear than when the spots aired during this year's Oscar broadcast and became the target of a Twitterstorm of abuse.

So why keep flogging a dead horse? Because it works. Other voter surveys show the Tories get a five per cent bump in approval ratings for their economic performance from people who remember seeing the blue-and-green-themed ads.

But if positive political polling numbers are the main reason for continuing with an irritating and expensive campaign, why is it that taxpayers are picking up the tab? If it's all about the political campaign, why not let the political campaign pay for it? Why should taxpayers who might not support the political ends of the government be forced to contribute to its ongoing efforts to pat itself on the back?

Here's a thought. In Ontario, an officer with the province's auditor general monitors government advertising to ensure it's fact-based, informative and non-partisan. Ads that don't measure up to that standard don't run.

Since the federal government is spending public dollars on the action plan ads, it's only fair the advertising not be skewed to serve the political ends of one particular political party.

There is a legitimate reason to make taxpayers aware of government services and programs.

But the advertising should focus on the services and programs.

When it crosses the line into politics, someone else should pay.

And, let's face it, the best people to choose whether the message is too political are not the politicians themselves.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 A15

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