05/26/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Ottawa Axes Questions From Post-Advertising Polls

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a media conference during the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. The final day of the G-8 summit of wealthy nations is ending with discussions on globe-trotting corporate tax dodgers, a lunch with leaders from Africa, and suspense over whether Russia and Western leaders can avoid diplomatic fireworks over their deadlock on Syria?s civil war. (AP Photo/Ben Stansall, Pool)

What we don’t know won’t hurt us. But what we do know just might.

That may be a new calculation the federal government is making. Ottawa has quietly stopped asking Canadians questions that risk getting the kinds of answers the government may not like.

Under federal advertising rules, Ottawa must survey Canadians on the impact of ad campaigns over $1 million and post results online. Those surveys have now shrunk because revealing questions have been dropped.

The move follows a torrent of criticism that some of Ottawa’s multi-million dollar taxpayer funded advertising promotes the government, not government programs.

Recently in the House, Liberal MP Frank Valeriote launched the latest attack. He accused the Conservatives of running a wasteful ad for veterans services during the NHL hockey playoffs that actually did vets a disservice.

“Why would it spend millions of dollars more on ads, while not properly funding the very programs veterans have been pleading for?” he asked.

One ad spot during the hockey playoffs can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But Canadians may never know if the veterans campaign they paid for had any real impact.

That’s because CBC News has learned Ottawa is now omitting from all its post advertising surveys, questions assessing whether its ads inspired Canadians to take any action. It also axed questions rating the government’s performance.

In the past, some of the answers have not exactly served the government well.

New strategy

Privy Council Office spokesman Raymond Rivet said the survey was streamlined last fall to include only questions “most useful in assessing a campaign’s objectives — notably recall, recognition and message retention.” He also said the government has other ways of assessing ads, in particular, by analyzing “various website statistics.”

But experts suspect a different motive.

Pollster David Coletto believes dropping the questions was a calculated move based on the fact these reports become public.

“They have to disclose the results and previous versions that they’ve disclosed have not been positive. They don’t want to take the risk of getting an answer they don’t want out there in the public realm,” said Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.

Perhaps the most damning publicity the government faced from its post ad surveys was sparked by an Economic Action Plan (EAP) poll that went public last summer. During the last fiscal year, the Finance Department spent almost $15 million on EAP advertising.

The poll was on a TV ad featuring workers busily building planes, a car, and a ship. The commercial boasted that the government was “creating jobs, growth, and prosperity.”

Through an access to information request, The Canadian Press got the poll before it was published. It reported embarrassing results such as, out of the 2,003 Canadians surveyed, only six per cent who saw the ad took any action. Nine of those people said the only action they took was to complain or “express displeasure." 

Just three people visited the advertised website. It was also noted no one called the toll-free number and that questions rating the government’s performance also garnered less than stellar results.

The next EAP post-ad poll with similar results also hit the papers.

The coverage sparked a spate of criticism including a Toronto Star editorial with the headline: “Economic Action Plan ads are wasteful Conservative propaganda.” The article went on to declare: “The bang they’re getting for their advertising buck amounts to a pop gun.” 

The criticism and mockery may have been a little too much for the government. The next time around, following yet another poll on yet another EAP ad campaign, the revealing questions had suddenly disappeared. The same thing happened with the Conservative’s controversial wireless competition ad campaign.

“When a government gets information they don’t want, one solution is just to not ask for the information,” said Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. "This is further evidence the government is trying to control its message.”

When the Conservative Party first came to power in 2006, following the Liberal sponsorship scandal, it pledged a new era of transparency and accountability. It attacked the previous Liberal government for not documenting post-ad surveys and passed a law making them public.

But that law, said Coletto, has become a problem.

“I think It is having a chill effect on what they’re actually doing in terms of public opinion and engaging with the public on a whole range of things,” he said.

During the last fiscal year, the government spent $4.3 million on public opinion research compared to $24.8 million in 2007-08.

On the government’s website, it says, “public opinion research helps the government listen to Canadians and respond to their needs.”

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