Advertising plays an important role in swaying public opinion. Companies use ads for a number of reasons; to raise their profile, to secure their place in the market, to demonstrate superiority over their competitors or to brag about how wonderful they are. Most of us are savvy enough to take some of the claims we hear in commercials with a grain of salt because we know that the opinion being presented is not completely objective.
Governments also use advertising, but the purpose of government advertising is to inform citizens about programs and services available to them, to promote health, well-being and public safety, and to keep Islanders informed of everything from public tenders to property tax sales. These ads are paid for with taxpayer dollars, and need to be completely non-partisan. Government advertising should never be seen as promoting the party in power.
A particularly egregious example of how government resources can be abused recently appeared in Ontario. Newly minted premier Doug Ford has started his own news station “Ontario News Now”, which is funded with taxpayers dollars and broadcasts partisan pieces on Mr. Ford’s impeccable work as the province’s new leader. This allows him to bypass the messy business of speaking with the media, who have an irritating habit of questioning some of his statements and actions. Much easier to deliver your message independently and without that sort of annoying interference.
Here on PEI, while we haven’t yet seen that level of naked brinkmanship, there are things that I believe should concern us. According to PEI’s 2018-2019 budget estimates, the Communications and Public Engagement division of Executive Council has a budget just short of three million dollars ($2,982,700), and over $300,000 of that is for paid advertising. That’s an awful lot of money just to ensure the public is kept informed of programs and services.
Now some provinces have legislation in place to ensure that governments do not use tax dollars to create partisan communications masquerading as government messages. On PEI we don’t. Anyone who received a property tax bill earlier this year would have also received a colourful insert reminding us just how excellent our government is. And commercial-style video press releases are common place these days all over social media, incorporating beaming ministers, and always touting the fineness of PEI’s current government. As a taxpayer, I’d prefer not to see advertisements from government telling me what a great job they are doing. I particularly don’t want my tax dollars to pay for the ads that are telling me how well my tax dollars are being spent.
What I’d like to see is a mechanism in place where an independent body – the Auditor General for example - could decide whether any particular advertisement has crossed the line from simply informing Islanders of government programs and activities to blatant self-congratulation. I’d also like to see each government communication accompanied by the note “this message is paid for by the taxpayers of PEI”. And finally government shouldn’t be running ads that feature an MLA's name, picture or voice - that type of self-promotion shouldn’t come out of taxpayers’ pockets. With rules like this, I think we’d see a few less ads, but more importantly, we’d have a few more tax dollars available for other programs.