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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Jeffrey Simpson: We all pay for the government’s hockey ads Add to ...

It’s Stanley Cup playoffs time again, and the playoffs mean hockey, yes, but also another barrage of Conservative Party advertising – oops, that should be “Government of Canada” advertising, paid for by you, the Canadian taxpayer.

When the playoffs end, one team will be champs; in the meantime, Canadians are taken for chumps. At your own expense, you will be sold the putative virtues of the government’s Economic Action Plan, which is central to Conservative Party political messaging.

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Every ministerial announcement has a backdrop with the Economic Action Plan logo. Every government project across the country uses billboards with the logo. Every boilerplate Conservative Party message – except the ones denigrating Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau – refers to this major plan. And now that the playoffs are on, little expense is spared to dip into taxpayers’ pockets for some additional messaging.

The messaging does not come cheap. The playoffs offer among the most expensive advertising slots on Canadian television, especially this year, with four Canadian teams having qualified for the first round. The country’s big three markets – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – all had teams make the playoffs.

From the government’s perspective, the beauty of this advertising (and all the other co-ordinated messaging) is that the Conservative Party doesn’t pay a dime but is presumed to reap political benefit. That’s why many governments do this kind of messaging, which they justify on the basis of “informing” us about public programs, but which is directly and subliminally designed to send positive vibrations to taxpayers about all the terrific things the government is doing.

Of course, television is a terrible medium for conveying details, facts or anything rational. It is a medium of emotion and image, and the government/Conservative ads are soft-sell, feel-good mini-soap operas about people being helped by the Economic Action Plan. The amount of hard information, of the kind that taxpayers might find useful, is next to nil. Why waste money trying to convey that in a medium fundamentally hostile to that kind of knowledge transfer?

So when ministers justify the advertisements as a contribution to “informing the public,” their words are politico-speak; that is, an implausible line of argument known to be largely false to those who follow issues closely but irrelevant to those who do not.

The Economic Action Plan communications strategy was dreamed up by Harper government spinmeisters at the time of the recession in late 2008 and 2009. The country is long removed from that recession, although its effects are still being felt (especially in government finances and unemployment levels).

There is no rational link any more between the original plan and today’s policies, since the short-term measures in the plan have largely expired. Its continued use in messaging, and the use of taxpayers’ dollars to extol its virtues, is to convey the government’s central political objective: that it is focused on the economy in a series of co-ordinated ways.

More broadly, the messaging reflects a government consumed with every possible detail of message control. A truly hilarious recent story, read properly, reflected this manic attention to messaging. Apparently, people in the Prime Minister’s Office went back and forth, back and forth with the Canadian Heritage Department over all sorts of little details – backdrops, details on uniforms and clothing – in those TV ads about the War of 1812. They even fretted about the colour of Laura Secord’s dress.

It would be funny, if it were not so disconcerting, that the PMO minions were so preoccupied with such trivia. But, of course, in their world of 24-hour preoccupation with spin and messaging, what would strike the rest of us as absurdly trivial is of great importance.

And, of course, part of the messaging strategy is to offer no messages. If you doubt it, just read the newspapers over the next two weeks and note how many times a government official, including those supposed to offer information, say “no comment,” or words to that effect.

Taxpayer-funded television ads, good. Reliable information, bad.

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