Wednesday, May 08, 2013

On public evils

Yes, there's plenty of reason to wonder what the Canadian public is getting for millions of dollars in ads intended to advertise...nothing at all. But I'll point out that the answer may be even worse than one might suspect at first glance.

Here's the background to the latest set of ad spending:
Taxpayer-funded government ads are supposed to inform citizens about programs and services, according to Treasury Board guidelines.

But when the Conservatives recently put out a tender for a major new ad agency contract that could see the feel-good "economic action plan" brand continued until 2016, they highlighted consumer confidence and the direction of the country as key objectives.

The government acknowledged Tuesday that "action plan" TV ads currently blanketing broadcasts of the NHL playoffs don't contain any actual measures from this spring's federal budget — although the ads are tagged with the budget's #eap2013 handle.
Despite the current radio disclaimer, the Harper government has not included any caution about MPs still having to approve the "economic action plan 2013" claims being made in its TV ads.

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office, which serves the prime minister, said that's because there's nothing new in the TV ads.

"The recent radio ads launched by the Department of Finance contained new measures for consideration by Parliament as part of the March 21, 2013 budget," spokesman Raymond Rivet said in an email.

"This is why a disclaimer was included. The recent EAP television advertisements did not contain new measures and aired before Budget 2013."
So what would we expect to be the result of advertising which is expressly aimed purely at "confidence" rather than actual outcomes, at expectations rather than reality?

The most obvious possibility - and the one which we likely see as both the Cons' intention and the primary source of outrage - is that it's purely a matter of partisan gain. If Canadians are more satisfied with the economy (whether or not that satisfaction is based on their actual interests), then the Cons have a greater chance of clinging to power in 2015. And Stephen Harper has never been reluctant to spend as much money as he can get his hands on to benefit his own political future.

I'll take at face value that political interests likely reflect the Cons' main intention surrounding the EAP ads. But distortion of Canada's partisan landscape is far from the most dangerous possible result of a massive confidence-boosting campaign.

Instead, the greatest risk may arise if the ads succeed in achieving their goals. If the Cons actually reach nearly every Canadian with constant messages about "jobs! growth! prosperity!" and drown out any voices of concern or countervailing considerations, then the result may simply be to widen the gap between perception and economic reality. Or in other words, to inflate an expectations bubble which is doomed to pop at some point.

Now, the Cons may figure that irrational exuberance is a public good - or at least a risk worth taking if it helps to win an extra term in office. But those of us whose real lives are at stake may have reason to disagree.

Which isn't to say that any given scheme to short Canada is particularly likely to succeed. But we should expect that our federal government would be primarily focused on improving the actual lives of Canadians, rather than deliberately putting perceptions first. And since the Cons have made it abundantly clear that they have their priorities wrong, we should be eager to put somebody more responsible in charge.


  1. I've seen it suggested that Conservative government ad buys may also in part be about bribing media outlets; the media do tend to treat their big advertisers with kid gloves.
    Of course this loses plausibility if a lot of the ads are going to the CBC.

  2. Given the import effect of confidence on the economy and the small cost of a major ad buy in comparison to the size of the economy, I could see how that might be a good investment.

    Of course, the Economic Action Plan ads are way to cynical to have that effect.