A government-commissioned Harris-Decima pre-testing report on a U.S. advertising blitz by Natural Resources Canada earlier this year found that focus groups in Washington, D.C., were befuddled by the campaign's original tagline — "America's best friend is America's best energy solution."
"Few would immediately assume this means Canada, despite certainly considering Canada to be a good friend," says the $58,000, taxpayer-funded report, posted Wednesday on Library and Archives Canada.
"Some indicated that claiming you are one's best friend comes across as something one does when one is about to ask for a huge favour."
Others took issue with the word "solution" because it suggested "America had a problem that needed solving." In a similar vein, "virtually all objected to the reference to Canada's ban on dirty coal as it seemed to imply that Canada is doing more than the U.S.," the report noted.
Budgetary estimates show that $16.5 million has been set aside by Natural Resources Canada for advertising in 2013-14 to highlight what the Harper government calls responsible resource development.
The U.S. advertising offensive has included promotions and ads in influential publications and a website for American viewers, gowithcanada.ca. The ads shine a job-friendly and environmentally sensitive light on a cross-section of Canadian resource industries.
The Conservative government has spent years trying to convince Americans of the benefits of Canadian energy and Canada's environmental record, particularly relating to Alberta's oilsands and the Keystone XL pipeline. U.S. President Barack Obama is set to make a decision on the fate of the TransCanada project early next year.
But Americans in six focus groups in Washington, D.C., told Harris-Decima researchers that the ads, launched in the spring during the heat of the Keystone battle, could be "greatly improved" and lacked a cohesive and direct message to the American public.
Harris-Decima interviewed people over three rounds, starting in March and ending a month later — members of the general public and so-called "opinion elites" who are political news aficionados.
"The advertising as it stands faces some challenges in conveying a consistently heard and appreciated message and could be greatly improved with some specific adjustments to tone and content," the report found.
Some respondents felt the ads should be more direct about advocating in favour of Keystone XL.
"Based on their assumption that the ads related to a Canadian pipeline, opinion elites were fairly uniform in stating a preference for seeing mention of 'pipeline' in the copy and perhaps the imagery," the report stated. "They indicated there was more credibility if the perceived message was less subtle."
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the Harris-Decima report helped the government create better ads.
"The purpose of the pre-testing was to ensure that the ads were effective. The final ads were amended based on the constructive feedback we received," he said.
In an email, Oliver defended the final ad campaign, saying it provided "specific facts about measures taken by Canada to protect the environment, and other information on responsible resource development."
Oliver also pointed to the positive input provided by the American focus groups.
Indeed, it wasn't all negative. The focus groups also felt "Canada provides a sensible energy solution to the U.S. because of its reliability as a supplier and its efforts to ensure safe delivery."
The report added: "It was fairly clear that Canada is held in fairly high regard, even if it is not often considered, and that an element of that high regard relates to Canada being a competent and trustworthy neighbour/partner — both in terms of industrial partnerships and acting responsibly."
As well, the opinion elites "indicated that Canada is seen as being more environmentally responsible and having higher safety standards compared to other oil producing countries."
Some of the criticism, however, was centred on confusion about the campaign's intended audience as well as its content and jargon. Those in one focus group complained about describing greenhouse gas emissions as GHGs, to name just one example.
Others wanted to know "how the U.S. will benefit from a Canadian pipeline, whether it be from increased oil imports from Canada or lower gas prices," said the report.
Among other complaints from the focus groups: Americans prefer their country be referred to as the United States or the U.S., not America. And the phrase "America faces a choice" in some of the original ads were "somewhat pushy."
In the summer of 2012, Natural Resources Canada hired Leger Marketing to fine-tune the government's proposed advertising campaign. The project included a national telephone poll of 2,000 respondents and two separate rounds of focus groups.
But a similar study, this one conducted in Canada, showed the ad campaign failed to impress a dozen focus groups spread across six Canadian cities. The ads were criticized as being too focused on Western Canada and of failing to provide factual information or deliver a coherent message.
Three new ad concepts were developed, with "significant modifications," and a second round of focus-group testing proved more positive.