Ottawa wants an agency to instil pride in Canadian food—but like any political objective, it’s tricky

The federal government is searching for an ad agency to develop its “Buy Canadian” digital-first campaign to promote Canadian agriculture products. There will no doubt be a long list of applicants.

Once you get past the first 17 pages of procurement-related information, the request for proposal document offers a revealing look at what the Liberal government is seeking. The national five-year “consumer focused social marketing” Buy Canadian Promotion aims to “better connect Canadians with Canada’s food system and its agriculture, food and seafood products.”

It cites research indicating that only one-third of Canadians rate themselves as knowledgeable about the agriculture and agri-food sector. While 91% of Canadians claim to know little, very little or nothing about modern farming practices, 60% of respondents are interested in knowing more about agriculture and how their food is produced.

Knowledge impacts preferences, as surveys also find consumers generally prefer to buy Canadian food products—believing that food produced in Canada is of good or excellent quality.

None of this is surprising, and that could be the brief.

But the government is going further. It wants to instil pride in Canada’s food system and its agriculture. The successful agency will be tasked with “telling the story of, and build pride in, Canada’s food sector and highlight the advantages of its products.” But pride is a loaded and complicated word when it comes to government advertising.

At a time when the country is divided and the Liberals are trying to keep it united in part to keep their minority government in power, it shouldn’t be surprising to see what could simply be an informational campaign turn into a pride-building effort.

I’d argue that all Government of Canada advertising should build pride in Canada when the strategy allows it, without being shoehorned into it. However, doing so is trickier than it used to be, first because of always thorny issues of local pride (ie. Quebec) and second, because of the still fresh memories of AdScam.

Local pride might not be as Canadian as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada would like it to be

The RFP document lists various strategic considerations. This one is particularly important: The campaign will need to consider existing branding initiatives (including but not limited to provincial and non-profit initiatives) and acknowledge provincial focus on fresh and local food.

As with almost everything in this federation, this campaign will require a careful balancing act in Quebec.

One can’t ignore the province’s Aliment du Québec organization created in 1996 to promote locally grown or made food products. Its distinctive, recently updated logo is now ubiquitous on packaging and in stores across the province.

Whenever it comes up in focus group research, it elicits reactions that go far beyond assurances of quality based on origins. It’s about local pride. Food from “chez nous.” Artisanal products our people proudly create. And a need for solidarity and encouraging the local economy by supporting local producers. And that’s just provincial pride. There’s a growing trend towards the hyper local.

It’s no surprise that honey producer Alvéole, which now offers honey from bees in Toronto’s Cabbagetown, Downtown, and Queen West neighbourhoods, was started in Montreal.

The introduction to the RFP states that “Canadians are becoming increasingly disconnected from how food is produced.” That may be so, but Quebeckers are a proud bunch and those responsible for spending tax dollars on creating pride in our food should take a close look at how Aliments du Quebec has created a very strong emotional connection before pitching Aliments du Canada in the province. If there was a case for thoughtful localization of a campaign, that would be it.

The unintended consequence of the sponsorship scandal

The last time the federal government actively sought to promote federalism and Canadian unity, the program turned into a criminal enterprise. What became known as AdScam started as an effort to raise awareness of the Government of Canada’s contribution to Quebec to counter the Parti Québécois’ promotion of Quebec’s independence.

In her 2004 report, then Auditor General Sheila Fraser revealed that up to $100 million of the $250 million sponsorship program was awarded to Liberal-friendly advertising firms and Crown corporations for little or no work. The Gomery Commission’s report issued two years later was devastating to the Liberals. Some of the key players went to jail and, after 12 consecutive years in power, the Liberals were defeated in the 2006 general election.

Politicians in Ottawa understandably became—and still are—allergic to the idea of promoting Canada to Canadians using government advertising.

Of course, this didn’t stop Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from blatantly promoting itself through government advertising in a highly partisan manner. In fiscal year 2009-10 alone, the federal government spent a whopping $136 million on advertising (see below), most of it on Canada’s Economic Action Plan.

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This use of public funds for self-serving propaganda prompted the Liberals during the 2015 election campaign to promise to ban partisan government advertising and appoint an advertising commissioner.

With the adoption of the Policy on Communications and Federal Identity in 2016,Canadians now have a transparent process resulting in a more judicious use of taxpayer funds for government advertising.

The Commissioner was never appointed, but Advertising Standards Canada was retained to vet each ad based on a set of criteria. Ads must be objective, factual, and explanatory; free from political party slogans, images, identifiers, bias, designation, or affiliation; the primary colour associated with the governing party cannot be used in a dominant way, and must be devoid of any name, voice or image of a minister, Member of Parliament or senator.

While these rules were necessary, they have had an unintended consequence: a reluctance to use government advertising to promote Canada to Canadians. We’ll see how the winning agency delivers a program that instills pride in Canada’s food without showing Liberal red apples.

Eric Blais