Is Alberta’s scary black-out ad campaign a sign of things to come?

—Alberta’s “Tell The Feds” campaign raises questions about how governments spend taxpayer money on partisan communications, says Éric Blais. And it could pave the way for a new advertising free-for-all—

If you live in Ontario, chances are you’ve been exposed to two hair-raising advertising campaigns about electricity lately.

The first was brought to you by the Government of Ontario. It proclaimed that “The Future is Electric,” and promoted the government’s investment in EV technology by featuring electrified people with their hair standing on end. The creative platform by Rethink was praised for breaking with government advertising orthodoxy.

The other electricity-related campaign is brought to you by, surprisingly, the Government of Alberta. And—with its predictions of power outages, ruined family dinners, and burst water pipes caused by potential power outages—it’s scary enough to make people’s hair stand on end.

At a press conference announcing the campaign on Sept. 28, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith delivered this warning: “If implemented, the proposed federal electricity regulations will stick Canadian families and businesses with unaffordable bills and provincial governments with crushing debt. And the grid itself, based on unreliable energy sources, will risk leaving many of us shivering in the darkness in the depth of winter or sweating it out in plus 30 weather in the summer”.

The $8 million multimedia campaign, created by DDB’s Edmonton office using radio, TV, billboards and social media, is running in Alberta, but also in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Under the theme “Tell the Feds,” it takes issue with the cost of hitting the federal government’s net-zero goal by 2035, and the reliability of Alberta’s electricity grid if it were forced to depend on solar and wind.

As expected in these complex matters, there are differing views. Smith and her government are arguing that the proposed electricity regulations will debilitate the province’s energy system. She called the Clean Electricity Regulations (CER) “disastrously uniformed and totally disconnected from reality.” Meanwhile, Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault responded that “any claim that building a clean electricity grid in Alberta will lead to blackouts is misinformation, designed to inflame, not inform.”

The agency was probably given a ton of background information about provincial and federal environmental policies, a crash course on energy sources, and on the province’s complex energy infrastructure. Still, judging by the creative, it has been able to boil facts and political spin into a single-minded, portable take-way thought: the draft clean energy regulations will negatively affect the reliability of the electricity grid if it were to rely on solar and wind.

That’s a great brief if you’re allowed to tell that story by focusing on the worst-case scenarios. It leads to lines like these for posters, social posts and the campaign’s website:

  • The things Canadians count on won’t work when needed;
  • No one wants blackouts in -30º;
  • No one wants to freeze in dark; and
  • No one wants their power bill to quadruple.

And it leads to radio spots with a similar tone: “When Ottawa’s proposed electricity regulations make electricity unreliable, the things you rely on won’t work when needed,” says a woman before listing off various amenities and tools, dramatic sound effects following each one. “Your hot water. Computer. Washer and dryer. Electric car. TV. Lights. Mobile phone. Stove. Your heat in –30.” One cautions that listeners may have to make “hard choices,” choosing between their power bill and winter boots, mortgage payments, rent, and braces for their kids.

It invites Albertans and residents of Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to “Tell the Feds” by writing to MPs through tellthefeds.ca

As far as advocacy campaigns go, its creators deserve kudos.

Except that it’s not an advocacy campaign produced and funded by an interest group aimed at garnering support for a cause. It’s a government ad campaign. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether this qualifies as partisan use of public funds.

But it’s fair to ask if it’s an effective use of those funds.

Many in Alberta are questioning the value of the investment, like this writer on Reddit: “I think it’s a waste of my Alberta taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on, oh I don’t know, prioritizing building schools in communities that need them?

It also isn’t playing well in Ontario. Toronto’s JAZZ FM91 has ceased running the ads after complaints from listeners. “We want to thank our listeners for their feedback about the Government of Alberta’s national ad that was heard on our station. We have chosen to cancel this contract effective today and these ads will cease running on JAZZ. FM91 effective midnight tonight,” read a tweet posted by JAZZ FM91 on Sept. 29. Predictably, it’s been accused of suppressing free speech.

The office of Alberta’s Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz stated in an email to the Edmonton Journal that, “the campaign is closely monitored and adapting as it unfolds.” It’s doubtful we’ll ever get a post-campaign analysis of its performance.

Whatever the stated measures of success might be, it has likely already partly achieved its objectives. The recent decision by the Trudeau government to yank the carbon tax from home heating oil—seemingly a reaction to plunging poll numbers in Atlantic Canada – will likely be interpreted as a sign that this multi-province advertising effort is delivering on the investment.

It might also further reinforce the Alberta Premier’s image as someone who’s not afraid of picking fights with Ottawa, strengthening her support from her base.

But the real indication of its effectiveness will be if Alberta’s strategy becomes part of other provinces’ playbook. It might embolden them to run ad campaigns against any federal policy they deem against their best interests. It could pave the way for a free-for-all, and while it wouldn’t necessarily be a good use of public funds, it would deliver much-needed cash to media providers. and great assignments to agencies.


Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais