Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Earned Advertising

Another communications game-changer from the Harper Conservatives?

“Earned media” is a concept familiar to anyone who has become involved enough in political campaigning to endure some basic communications reading and/or training. For the uninitiated, “earned media” is what a politician, party or government gets when a news story follows from a planned event or media release.

Earned media is highly prized and great efforts are put into getting it, because (1) it doesn’t cost the campaign/party/government much, and (2) being reported as a “news” item gives the initiative an imprimatur of credibility and/or truth, e.g. “Daycare tops Liberal agenda” on the front page of the Toronto Star (well, some earned media stories have more credibility than others, but you get the picture). Earned media is in contrast to paid media, i.e. advertising during or between campaigns.

What the Harper government has managed to achieve, however, is something I don’t recall ever seeing in my 25-plus years following politics: earned advertising.

It struck me as I walked by the Home Hardware in Creemore on Christmas Eve: In the window was a poster – designed, produced and displayed by Home Hardware – promoting the government’s Home Renovation tax Credit. “Holy Christmas,” I realized. A private company is using its own marketing resources to promote a government initiative. This is crazy. Like a fox.

We also saw this when many banks advertised the Tax-Free Savings Accounts enacted in a previous federal budget, through TV and other ads.

Maybe I’m late to the party on this, but to my knowledge, the media still hasn’t figured out the party is on. I’ve seen no acknowledgement of this phenomenon in the political press. It’s not like they’re blind. They’ve given grudging respect to Harper for his achievements as a strategist and communicator, particularly in the branding of Liberal leaders Dion and Ignatieff (which, not coincidentally, fits with the “mean Harper” narrative). But I have yet to see any pick-up on the earned advertising.

In a way, that the Harper government has implemented policies that attract consumer and hence business enthusiasm are not surprising. The folklore around the GST cut is that it was “inspired” by the Harris government’s generous 30% and 20% income tax cuts in Ontario. They were huge, but few voters noticed, meaning the Harris PCs got little credit for them. Harper, so the story goes, was not about to make the same mistake. If your tax cut is a tree that falls in the forest, no one hears it. Hence the very simple yet highly visible GST cut.

But the question with this advertising, as with any advertising, is: yes, it’s clever – but is it effective? Do consumers connect the advertising to a Harper government initiative? And does it improve their impressions of the Harper government and possibly influence their vote? Those are questions for the Muttarts, Brodies and Flanagans of the world, but I hope they are finding out.

Contrast this with the much-fetishized, big-ticket, public-sector initiatives of the Liberals, both federal and provincial. Dalton McGuinty is dropping a major chunk of our change implementing full-day Junior Kindergarten, which will keep teachers employed in an era of stagnant and declining pupil enrolment. (And put toddlers on school buses, something Mike Harris warned was a bad idea.)

Do you think the Elementary Teachers’ Federation is going to buy ads thanking McGuinty for his (read: our) generosity? Don’t hold your breath. The same goes for Ignatieff, should he ever manage to implement the Liberals’ now 17-year-old promise of government day care.

Public sector unions expect a continually expanding government, with greater employment, pay and benefits for their members. Look at the TTC union’s backlash against TTC customers for fingering their less conscientious (and less conscious) brothers and sisters. Why would unions waste their precious steakhouse and convention money thanking taxpayers and politicians for something that is theirs by right?

Well-chosen, appealing Conservative policies may leverage earned advertising from a business-hungry private sector, while the Liberals and New Democrats are left choking on the fart cloud of their insatiable, ungrateful, public-sector partners. Something to think about.


Anonymous said...

Conservatives must promote themselves in a left wing country at every opportunity. The media has turned on us because it realizes that they don't own us anymore. Also, the media realizes that they can't steer the agenda according to their demands. Like spoiled children the media in this country whine and bawl for the candy that was taken away from them. (real conservative)

Anonymous said...

I never thought about TFSA or Home Reno Tax Credit that way, but it does make sense, small hit on the treasury, free advertising through third parties.
... like a fox :-)