Harper Government’s $16.5 Million Canadian Energy Ad Campaign Gets Underwhelming Response in US

It seems that the start of the Harper Government's $16.5 million advertising campaign to push the US to turn to Canadian energy, specifically by supporting the Keystone XL pipeline and tar sands oil production, isn't quite having the impact that the Conservatives were hoping for.

Lee-Anne Goodman writes for the Canadian Press, that "efforts by the Conservative government to sell Americans on the virtues of Canadian natural resources failed to impress those south of the border, according to a new report, and even left them puzzled over assertions that Canada is America's best friend."

The $58,000 government commissioned Harris-Decima report found that the advertising push by Natural Resources Canada left focus groups in Washington D.C. "befuddled" by the campaign's tagline, "America's best friend is America's best energy solution."

The taxpayer-funded report posted Wednesday on Library and Archives Canada found few would assume that the tagline was referring to Canada, "despite certainly considering Canada to be a good friend," further adding "some indicated that claiming you are one's best friend comes across as something one does when one is about to ask for a huge favour."

The report also observed that the focus groups were displeased with the tone of the ads, saying that the word "solution" suggested that "America had a problem that needed solving." Similarly, the report noted that "virtually all objected to the reference to Canada's ban on dirty coal as it seemed to imply that Canada is doing more than the US."

Respondents also indicated that the use of the phrase "America faces a choice" was "somewhat pushy," and didn't like the country being referred to as "America" instead of the US or the United States.

The US advertising campaign includes a website geared towards US viewers, as well as ads and promotions in influential publications that "shine a job-friendly and environmentally sensitive light on a cross-section of Canadian resource industries," reports the Canadian Press.

The campaign is part of the Harper government's plan to gain access to foreign markets for Canadian oil. The Keystone XL pipeline project would make large quantities of tar sands oil available to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. President Obama is set to make a decision on the TransCanada pipeline early next year.

The Canadian Press reports that the six focus groups in Washington D.C. told Harris-Decima researchers that "the ads, launched in the spring during the heat of the Keystone battle, could be "greatly improved" and lacked a cohesive and direct message to the American public."

Harris-Decima interviewed people in three rounds over March and April, including members of the general public and political news aficionados called "opinion elites."

"The advertising as it stands faces some challenges in conveying a consistently heard and appreciated message and could be greatly improved with some specific adjustments to tone and content," the report stated.

Respondents felt that the ads should be "less subtle" about advocating in favour of Keystone XL. The report stated that "opinion elites were fairly uniform in stating a preference for seeing mention of 'pipeline' in the copy and perhaps the imagery" based on the assumption that "the ads related to a Canadian pipeline."

"The purpose of the pre-testing was to ensure that the ads were effective. The final ads were amended based on the constructive feedback we received," said Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

In an email, Oliver defended the campaign, saying that it provided "specific facts about measures taken by Canada to protect the environment, and other information on responsible resource development."  

Oliver also pointed out the positive feedback from the report, which did say that "Canada is held in fairly high regard, even if it is not often considered, and that an element of that high regard relates to Canada being a competent and trustworthy neighbour/partner both in terms of industrial partnerships and acting responsibly."

The report also found that opinion elites generally felt that Canada is "more environmentally responsible" than "other oil producing countries."

But there was also more criticism stemming from confusion about the campaign's intended audience and use of "jargon" like GHG for greenhouse gases, which one focus group complained about.

Others wanted to know how exactly the Keystone XL would benefit Americans, "whether it be from increased oil imports from Canada or lower gas prices," said the report.

The government hired Leger Marketing in summer 2012 to "fine-tune" the ad campaign, reports the Canadian Press.

A similar study conducted in Canada showed that the ad campaign failed to impress Canadians in twelve focus groups across six cities. The ads were found to be lacking in "factual information" and failing to deliver "a coherent message."  After "significant modifications," a second round of focus-group testing results reportedly proved more positive.

It's uncertain whether the budget for repeated focus-group testing also comes from the $16.5 million set aside for this ad campaign. Recently Natural Resources Canada announced an additional $24-million for an international tar sands advertising campaign, designed to counter "intense and sustained public relations campaigns" against the resource.

Image Credit: Rocco Rossi / Wikimedia Commons

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

Top B.C. government officials knew Site C dam was in serious trouble over a year ago: FOI docs

Two top B.C. civil servants, including the senior bureaucrat who prepares Site C dam documents for cabinet, knew in May 2019 that the project faced...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism