Economic Action Plan TV-radio ads stirring little interest, poll suggests

OTTAWA – Canadians tuned out another series of slick, taxpayer-funded Economic Action Plan ads that filled the airwaves in the spring, a new survey suggests.

Radio and TV spots appeared in late March to coincide with the release of the 2013 federal budget, but an internal poll of 2,009 adults indicates the action plan brand remains tarnished.

The Harris-Decima survey found 38 per cent were happy with the Conservative government’s performance, the lowest level among the 10 such polls conducted since April 2009, when the first wave of action plan ads was released.

The number of people who did something as a result of seeing the ads registered at seven per cent, little changed from the six per cent for the winter ad campaign.

The levels are sharply down from a peak of 25 per cent in 2009, when a popular home-renovation tax credit caught the attention of homeowners across the country.

The Finance Department’s key yardstick for measuring success is to count how many viewers and listeners visited, the web portal that’s promoted at the end of the 30-second ads. Harris-Decima found six people who did so, double the number from its winter polling.

No one called the toll-free number also listed in the latest ads, which ran from March 21 to April 4.

At the same time, the pollster found another 22 people who “felt/expressed displeasure/complained to others,” up from nine in the earlier winter survey completed in April.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the June 19 survey report under the Access to Information Act.

Finance Canada paid $29,373 for the telephone poll, conducted April 29-May 11, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The Harper government has spent well in excess of $100 million on Economic Action Plan promotion over the last four years.

A Finance Department spokeswoman declined to provide the cost of the spring TV-radio campaign, saying the numbers would be published eventually. Stephanie Rubec also did not indicate whether Canadians can expect to see more such ads this year, saying plans have “yet to be finalized.”

Rubec added that traffic to the web portal increased to almost 15,000 visits daily during the spring TV-radio campaign, from a “baseline” of 2,300 visits.

A political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., questioned why governments engage in self-promotional advertising when there’s little evidence it improves their standing among voters.

“I ask the question, and I actually still don’t know the answer to this question, is why governments advertise,” Simon Kiss said in an interview.

“Why are they doing this when it’s just not effective?”

One answer is that the Conservatives want to keep the focus on the economy in the run-up to the 2015 election and the ads help reinforce that message, says a conservative commentator and communications specialist.

“I don’t think the Conservatives are losing sleep that no one is visiting the website,” Gerry Nichols, formerly with the National Citizens Coalition when Stephen Harper was its president, said in an interview from Oakville, Ont.

“I think the message behind the Economic Action Plan was primarily political, that is, to show Canadians that the government is doing a good job with the economy.”

Nichols says the Harper government will likely tweak the spots to make them appear fresher in the next two years, but the ads will continue “to work at a more subconscious level: Conservatives-economy-good.”

And he says Canadians who are particularly offended by the ads likely would never vote Conservative anyway.

Rubec said the campaign simply responds to the expectations of Canadians.

“Public opinion research consistently reveals that Canadians want governments to inform them of the nature, availability and ways to access benefits and programs,” she said in an email.

One of the most heavily promoted programs currently on the Economic Action Plan website, the Canada Job Grant, has not yet been negotiated with the provinces and is not accessible to any Canadian worker.

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