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Dermod Travis: Government ads proliferate as election approaches

Mute them, channel-surf, hide them all you want, but there’s no escaping them. The B.C.

Mute them, channel-surf, hide them all you want, but there’s no escaping them.

The B.C. government is in the midst of saturating television shows and social media in the province with a multimillion-dollar back-patting advertising campaign in advance of the 2017 election.

The B.C. Liberal party — which clearly has money to burn — is getting in on the act as well with mood-setting political ads.

Can’t fault them. They did raise the funds one $10,000 cheque at a time.

It can be tough to distinguish between the two ad campaigns, though.

You almost expect the B.C. Liberal party executive director Laura Miller to burst through the front doors of the legislature to tag government ads with: “We’re the B.C. Liberal party and we approve this message, too.”

How far does the symbiotic marketing go? Sometimes the synergy is subtle, sometimes not.

Take the 2013 throne speech.

The word “economy” left the lips of Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon 23 times, followed by “jobs” at 21 — including seven times in one 26-word passage alone — and “tomorrow” six times.

There was this classic line: “Today, the measure of confidence in British Columbia’s [LNG] strategy is clear.”

Four years later, it’s safe to say truer words were never spoken.

The speech itself was peppered with buzz phrases such as “an essential component of a strong economy,” “what a strong economy delivers” and “to secure a brighter future tomorrow.”

Buzz phrases also crept into news releases: “The right skills for the right job is integral to maintaining a strong economy.”

One of the B.C. Liberals’ key slogans in the election was “Strong economy, secure tomorrow.” Another was a “debt-free B.C.,” but we don’t need to go there.

It wasn’t always this way.

The approach of former premier Gordon Campbell’s administration and that of Premier Christy Clark are a study in contrasts.

Campbell banned non-essential government advertising in the four months prior to voting day.

The December 2008 B.C. Public Affairs Bureau memorandum to ministries read: “Effective, Jan. 12, 2009, non-essential advertising will cease until May 13, 2009.

“Non-essential advertising [included] any promotional or informational activity conducted by a provincial ministry, authority or agency that is not required for statutory, emergency, health and safety or the proper functioning of government.”

In the two-week period prior to the writ dropping in April 2009, the government issued nine news releases.

What a difference four years makes.

In 2013, the government squeezed six fact sheets and 43 news releases into that two-week period.

The government announced a $584-million program “to seismically upgrade 45 high-risk schools today, marking a significant milestone in [the] government’s commitment to student safety.”

Clark noted: “Absolutely nothing is more important than keeping our kids safe.”

Except electioneering.

The government only got around to announcing many of the schools — and the plans — this year.

As long as seismic events are aligned with election cycles, everything should be just fine.

New revenue-sharing agreements were announced to “enable two Williams Lake-area First Nations to benefit from the expansion of the Mount Polley mine.”

And going right down to the wire, on April 13, 2013, the government announced that the new l’école des Pionniers (K-12) was “on the drawing board,” with “construction expected to begin in spring 2014 and an anticipated completion date of fall 2015.”

There must have been a lot of drawings to do. Just this week, the government announced that construction is finally underway. Students are expected to “move into the new school in winter 2018.”

Out of 17 project-specific announcements, 14 were in Liberal-held or swing ridings.

Some of the government’s television ads back then were so blatantly partisan that Gerry Nichols — a conservative, independent communications consultant — said they crossed “the line between informational ads and political propaganda.”

CBC deemed the government’s budget ads “advocacy advertisements” and refused to run them during news programs.

The government is well on its way to meeting — or beating — the $16.6 million it spent on advertising leading-up to the 2013 election.

In the 2015/16 fiscal year, spending on advertising more than doubled to $12.45 million from nearly $5.7 million the year before.

At least the public can have confidence that government ads aren’t targeted to specific audiences based on B.C. Liberal party polling data.

They can, can’t they?

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.