The flagship TV spot showed a veteran dressing for a job on civvy street, with a word-scroll saying that "rehabilitation, financial support, mental health services, career transition services" were all available from the department when it was being criticized for closing offices and short-changing suffering vets.
The department hired pollster Harris Decima to survey 2,007 people in June about what they remembered, if anything, about the TV, radio and internet advertising – and discovered a sharp backlash.
The ads prompted viewers to lambaste Veterans Affairs for "lack of funding/misappropriation of funds/money wasted on ads," and the "lack of fair treatment for veterans," says an internal survey analysis. Other viewers mentioned the "lack of support for veterans/their families" and the "lack of access to services/cuts to veterans service."
Of the 435 people who said they knew a veteran and had seen the ads, more than 40 per cent had only negative things to say, compared with 27 per cent who were positive. Even among those who did not know a veteran, 37 per cent offered negative comments and only 29 per cent were positive.
The five-week national campaign, which ran May 12 to June 15, was the first ever by Veterans Affairs that focused on support and services available to veterans. Previous ads have had Remembrance Day themes.
Production, media buy and evaluation cost taxpayers $4.3 million, and came at a time when then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino was under fire from veterans groups for lack of support to injured vets, and the closure of eight service centres.
"The 2014 advertising campaign … results show this campaign was effective, particularly among those who report they personally know a veteran," says a November briefing note to Fantino, who was replaced in January by Erin O'Toole.
But a government analysis of the Harris Decima survey numbers, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, suggests the millions spent did little to stir warm feelings for the department.
"Gov(ernment) self-promotion for not doing enough/veterans are being neglected" was the response of some 150 people who saw the ads and were asked to describe the "main point."
Visits up on Veterans Affairs website
A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs says the department regards the campaign as a success because almost half those surveyed remembered seeing the ads, and the number of veterans signing up for an online MyVAC account increased 28 per cent during the campaign.
"Comparing website visits prior to the campaign to those during the peak of the campaign, VAC (Veterans Affairs Canada) experienced an 876 per cent increase in web visits," Kate Murphy said in an email.
"Plans for 2015 VAC advertising have not been finalized," she added.
NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer, who called the ads a waste of money at the time they ran, now says "we've got confirmation."
"This was blatant opportunism because the government has your tax dollars and they wasted it," he said from Fall River, N.S. "It's pure propaganda."
Stoffer said the money would have been better spent contacting veterans directly.
Focus groups that were shown the TV ad in the spring before it aired were generally positive, though some said the spot "does not visually convey a sense of services used by this individual or why he needs them," says a $69,000 report commissioned from Phoenix Strategic Perspectives.
Since being appointed minister on Jan. 5, O'Toole has taken a more conciliatory position with veterans, announcing several improvements to benefits in the last two weeks.
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