When it comes to advertising, who governs the government?

As the Ontario PCs face accusations of using public money for political posturing, Headspace Marketing president ERIC BLAIS argues that partisan ads should be restricted to party websites and social media sites.

When the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario announced plans to eliminate the position of the French language services commissioner last year, I wanted to order new licence plates bearing the French slogan “Tant à découvrir”—the French version of “Yours To Discover”—to show my solidarity with Franco-Ontarians.

I guess I should now wait to find out what the French version of Ontario’s new slogan, “A Place To Grow,” will be before doing so.

Not everyone is pleased with this proposed change which would replace the “Yours to Discover” slogan that has been in place for 37 years. Some see it as purely partisan, since that line was used by the Doug Ford campaign during the election.

Perhaps it is. But it’s a minor transgression compared to the Ford government’s plans to advertise its anti carbon tax position at the gas pump with the one-sided message “The federal carbon tax will cost you”—effectively forcing gas station owners to become amplifiers of a partisan message or face fines of up to $10,000 a day (that’s Minister of Environment, Conservation & Parks Rod Phillips introducing the stickers earlier this month in the photo above).

There is often a fine line between partisan and non-partisan government advertising, but the big question is who should draw it, and how?

We all pay for government advertising. Some say its only role should be to inform. Yet even information can benefit the governing party, depending on how it’s presented. When Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government introduced the photo ID version of the health card in 1995, it ran an extensive campaign with the slogan “You have reasons to smile Ontario.” It’s hard to ignore the double meaning: smile for the camera, and feel good about your government and its policies.

More recently in Ontario, the province’s Auditor General called out Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals for using taxpayers’ money to fund “self-congratulatory ads that don’t add value.”

Perhaps the most visible use of government advertising for partisan purposes took place during the Harper years, with its ubiquitous Economic Action Plan advertising. Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson put it this way: “Other federal governments have promoted themselves using what the Harper government jokingly calls ‘hard-working taxpayers’ money. None, however, has done it so openly, lavishly, frequently and unashamedly.” When you spend money to tell voters how their government is spending their money, you’re probably crossing the line.

But government advertising can’t only be about information. It has to be about promotion to change attitudes and behaviour, and that’s where there will always be a grey zone and a temptation to deliver information in a way that helps the governing party’s agenda.

Quebec, for example, passed its mandatory seatbelt law in 1976, the same year the Parti Québécois came to power. The campaign promoting the use of seatbelts had a clever slogan: “On s’attache au Québec” (we buckle-up in Quebec and we get attached to Québec). Coincidence?

In her 2016 report, Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said her office wouldn’t have approved the Liberals’ climate change ad or a factually incorrect infrastructure ad, and would have questioned an ad on high school graduation rates.

Still, they ran because her office no longer had the authority to approve them before they were made public. The Government Advertising Act introduced in Ontario in 2004 gave that power to the Auditor General, but was amended in 2015—effectively eliminating the power to block partisan ads. Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown promised to restore the Auditor General’s power, but we all know how that ended.

The federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau promised to create a third-party review process under an advertising commissioner to ensure that government messages are “appropriate, proportional, and a prudent use of public funds.” While no commissioner was appointed, there is now a process in place for a mandatory review by Advertising Standards Canada (ASC).

Would it have the power to stop initiatives such as Stephen Harper’s weekly video series 24 Seven, which chronicled the former Prime Minister’s activities? That publicly funded effort was criticized by critics as a way to get around mainstream media and reach voters with coverage framed exactly the way the Conservatives wanted it.

Ontario’s Government Advertising Act (before it was amended) had teeth. And ASC’s role at the federal level may in fact prove to be the right model. There has to be a way to restrict partisan ads to the parties’ websites and social media pages.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.