Government Advertising in a Crisis: The Quebec Referendum Precedent

Jonathan Rose (Queen's University)

Abstract: This paper examines the federal government advertising strategy during the 1980 Quebec referendum. It is argued that during periods of political instability governments use persuasive advertising disguised as informational advertising.

Résumé: Cet article étudie la stratégie publicitaire adoptée par le gouvernement fédéral lors du référendum de 1980 au Québec. L'auteur soutient qu'en période d'instabilité politique, les gouvernements ont recours à une publicité de persuasion déguisée en publicité d'information.


The Canadian referendum on the 1992 set of federal government constitutional proposals opened the floodgates of advertising from both the Yes and No sides. Canadians witnessed arguments, both subtle and overt, about the merits and flaws of each side. While it seems clear that the Yes side, with the support of some large economic interests and the federal government, spent far more than the loose coalition on the No side, both sides spent an inordinate amount of money persuading the public through advertising. Though the communication strategies of the two sides remain privy to only a few observers, we may be able to draw some conclusions about the way governments use advertising in periods of political crises using the 1980 Quebec referendum precedent. The 1980 referendum can be seen as a political crisis in that a sub-national unit of government was threatening to secede if it had the support of the people. A similar crisis re-occurred in 1992 when a constitutional package was put together with the intent of responding to the demands of Quebec.

One of the most commonly heard criticisms of advertising by government is that the advertisements are publicly funded party propaganda. The 1980 referendum is noteworthy because two federal governments, the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark and the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, were both involved in the same kind of advertising and made the same pro-federalist arguments. The Quebec referendum provides a rare opportunity to see government advertising during periods of political instability when the security of the state is threatened.

In late 1976 the separatist Parti québécois (P.Q.), under the leadership of René Lévesque, had found themselves in government, having beaten Claude Ryan's pro-federalist Liberal party. The P.Q. had committed itself to holding a referendum dealing with "sovereignty association." In effect, it was asking the Quebec electorate for a mandate to negotiate the province's future in the federation. The referendum was held in May 1980. The principal actors leading up to it were the Oui forces were led by the P.Q. government and the Non forces led by the provincial Liberal opposition party. Legally, these were the only two groups allowed to spend money and campaign in the referendum, though, as we shall see, the federal government played an important role.

Though the referendum was technically a provincial matter, the federal government had an important stake in its outcome. It recognized both the electoral consequences of losing Quebec in the referendum and the potential nationalist backlash a Non vote might have. If Quebec seceded not only would there be an enormous financial, social, and cultural cost but the reality of losing sixty nine Liberal seats in Quebec also had to be a concern to the Liberal Prime Minister.

As was the case with the referendum in 1992, the federal efforts in the 1980 referendum were multi-pronged. While advertising was a central focus of the federal strategy, it was also complemented by a task force and publicity campaigns coordinated from among the highest offices of the government. The task force, given wide terms of reference and headed by two prominent Canadians, was established to generate public input on the terms of reference of Confederation. The federal government's communications strategy was coordinated by Paul Tellier from the Privy Council Office. It was here where a small group of eleven people, who Tellier described as "a mix of doers, thinkers and shit disturbers," was to be the eyes and ears of the federal communications strategy ("They May Not Save a Country, but at Least They'll Build an Empire," 1977, p. 415). The Tellier group made policy and the Canadian Unity Information Office (CUIO) carried it out. Its role will be discussed in greater detail below.

Examination of memos, communications plans, and other recently de-classified documents makes it evident that the Canadian government sought not to provide "value free information" but rather a strong pro-federalist argument. The case was not made explicitly. We will examine the rhetorical strategies of the federal government's advertising plan and see that, at first glance, the advertising took the shape of information. This was only an advertising technique and made the federal government's less than obvious claims more persuasive. We will also see that the Quebec government was a skilful advertiser and used the same advertising techniques as did its federal counterpart. Finally, the case of the Quebec referendum will shed some much needed light on how governments advertise on contentious issues. One of the main criticisms of this kind of state communication has to do with charges of propaganda. Though the federal government was involved in arguments that were designed to make a pro-federalist case, it had an obligation to persuade the Quebec public on this issue.

Semiotics and Advertising

If we wish to understand how the ads may be received by the public, semiotics offers us some insight as an analytical tool. Semiotics is the study of signs and how they are mediated by the reader. All advertising is comprised of a combination of signs or what Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of semiotics, called syntagmatic relations (Culler, 1986, pp. 59-62). The way in which these signs are put together creates the message. Semiotics, applied to advertising, is an attempt to construct the meaning from both verbal and non-verbal signs through understanding and interpretation.

William Leiss, Steven Kline, & Sut Jhally in their study of advertising warn us about some of the limitations of using a semiotic focus (1990, p. 214). One of the most significant shortcomings is the problem in establishing consistency or reliability among various studies. There is often sufficient divergence among analysts that reaching agreement on what is found in a message is often difficult. Second, quantification using semiotics is virtually impossible because the approach stresses individual readings of messages. Any insights drawn from this approach must remain impressionistic (Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1990, p. 214). A third limitation is that because of its nature, semiotics better lends itself to communications which are rich in symbolic meaning. For example, television advertising with its own symbolic logic is a better medium in which to understand the interactions of signs than is the print medium.

Notwithstanding these limitations, semiotics allows us a window from which we are able to examine how arguments are made explicitly and implicitly. As a tool for examining advertising, semiotics helps us understand how signs and symbols are manipulated to form "structures of meaning" (Williamson, 1990, p. 12). These structures of meaning shape our attitudes toward the "product" or in this case the "policy" being advertised. Moreover, semiotics enables us to understand further how advertisements manipulate powerful symbols to persuade the reader.

Whither the CBC?

An effective government communications plan requires several channels of communication and diverse media exposure. The one institution that could have played an important role in providing a platform for arguing the federal case was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), whose mandate specifically included aiding national unity. To understand why it did not fulfill this function, one needs to understand the debates going on in the CBC during this time.

Prior to the election of the P.Q. in November 1976, the role of the CBC had been scrutinized by the then new Chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Harry Boyle, at the request of the prime minister. The Boyle Report recommended that the CBC play an increased role in the protection of Canadian identity. The threat was seen as coming from south of the 49th parallel not from Quebec separatists. The election of the P.Q. changed all that and a vigorous debate ensued about the proper role of the CBC in combatting the perceived internal threat. In the House of Commons Prime Minister Trudeau was "very concerned about the possibility of CBC Radio-Canada propagandizing separatism" (Hansard, February 1977, p. 3420). A CBC report of this era, called CBC--A Perspective, agonized over the appropriate boundary between public broadcaster--whose mandate included a strong support of national unity--and the journalistic norms of freedom of speech. It argued that the CBC had an obligation to include "the arguments against nationhood as we know it--the arguments, for example, in favour of the independence of Quebec." It went on to say:

For Canada's public broadcasting system even to air such arguments against nationhood is distasteful to some Canadians. But if we are to exemplify and to respect the freedom of speech and discussion upon which Canada is founded, we must accord "freedom for the thought you hate," as one internationally renowned jurist once put it. To give expression to this freedom is not in any way to tolerate a bias against nationhood; and such bias would be quite unacceptable to the CBC. (Quoted in Raboy, 1990, pp. 254-255)

A. W. Johnson, President of the CBC, took the same approach with respect to its role during the referendum as he did the period leading up to it. Addressing a House of Commons committee studying communications and culture, Johnson said:

The essence of the CBC's role in the referendum debate, it seems to us, is clearly defined by the premise which underlies the very existence of the Canadian community: that it is a community based upon freedom of speech and opinion and expression. ... The role of the CBC, then, in its news and current affairs programming, is to inform Canadians about the issues they confront so as to assist them in deciding upon their future. The exercise of this responsibility calls for identifying and exploring the issues confronting Canadians fairly and objectively, comprehensively and accurately; and for reflecting differing views about these issues fully and fairly and in a balanced manner. (Johnson, 1979, pp. 4A:34, 4A:35)

The CBC, which could have been a potent weapon in the federal government's communications arsenal, had chosen the norms of journalistic freedom of speech over its national unity mandate. Caught in a real conundrum, the federal government needed an agency that appeared to be independent of its partisan interests and one whose support was not tied to the vagaries of popular support for the government. It needed to have legitimacy. The purpose of this agency had to be the unrelenting promotion of the federal position in the Quebec referendum. It is from these sets of demands that the CUIO came into existence.

The CUIO: "Making Pictures in Our Heads"

In many ways, the Liberal government's creation of the CUIO in August 1977 seemed a natural extension of the work done by the then extant Information Canada. Though it had a much more partisan role than Information Canada, the CUIO was to be simply the bulwark of federalism. In Quebec, it was a persistent reminder of the national government's presence, treading carefully between the Scylla of propaganda and the Charybdis of federal indifference. In the national unity debate launching the CUIO on July 5, the prime minister attempted to reach beyond the partisan. Saying that "the national unity concept is not linked to any government nor any party in particular" and that his government would not "deal with [the CUIO's] purposes, since we basically agree on those" (Hansard, July 1977, pp. 7311- 12) was his way of attempting to diffuse any criticism based on its propaganda potential.

The story of the CUIO is, in part, a story of how the government was able to create an elaborate and sophisticated communications apparatus to keep Quebec within Confederation while not appearing to interfere in a provincial matter. It was created, almost exclusively, for the purpose of providing voters in the Quebec referendum a chance to hear the federalist side. It is ironic then that some of its most vociferous opponents were outside that province. The self-described functions of the CUIO were as follows:

gathering, developing and distributing information and documentation designed to enlighten the issue of Canadian unity;
responding to requests for information from individuals and non-governmental organizations, on matters relating to Canadian unity;
guiding and advising groups seeking assistance for projects promoting Canadian unity;
working in cooperation with federal departments to ensure the enhancement of the Canadian unity theme in the information components of major government programs. (CUIO, 1978, p. 1)

It is useful to note that these functions entailed both responding to requests for information as well as attempting to create a consensus around national unity. National unity was broadly defined to include not only the immediate separatist threat but also ensuring acquiescence for constitutional efforts which would occupy the government's agenda in 1981 and 1982.

One of the often-cited defences for advertising by government is the rationale that it is merely responding to requests. This was the case with the recent Goods and Services Tax (GST) advertising campaign, and the patriation of the constitution in the early 1980s. This argument implies that rather than `selling' a policy or an idea the government is merely responding to public demand--hardly a contentious proposition. This rationalization is disingenuous; the government's advertising was itself creating the public requests for information. A memo from this period makes it evident that the government was struggling with this problem:

[We] should seek to ascertain not only what packaging would best be suitable, but what kinds of information, if any, are needed. The point is that any unsolicited information which does not respond to a need for it will meet with negative reaction on the part of the public. ... In other words, if general publics are not aware of programs, they do not require information and the demand for it is non-existent. This raises the question as to whether or not government can generate the demand for consumption of packaged information. (Morgan, n.d, p. 1)

Advertising campaigns provided the vehicle to reach mass publics but this was complemented by having Members of Parliament and Senators sell the federal government's programs in Quebec using an exhaustive data base of federal programs and expenditures in that province.

Like Information Canada, the CUIO produced a myriad of publications and advertisements (or "packaged information") ostensibly for the benefit of explaining issues of national unity. The titles suggest the thrust of the government's concerns: The Constitutional Regime, Constitutional Reform, Cost Sharing Programs, and Quebec in the Federal System. Each "information package" included speeches and statements from a wide variety of opinion leaders such as business and labour leaders, academics, and parliamentary leaders. This both enhanced the credibility of the package (by appearing to be balanced), but also pre-empted opposition charges of "government propaganda." It attempted to raise discussion of the national unity question above electoral partisanship. Other publications were much more specifically targeted to particular audiences. Sovereignty Association--The Contradictions did not attempt to be balanced or discuss both sides of the issue in an effort to assist Canadians in deciding upon the Quebec question. Like the GST and the constitution patriation, federal government advertising was merely one element of an elaborate communications strategy. Promotions and exhibitions enhanced the message of the advertising. Charges of propaganda were further muted in the House of Commons through using commissions, task forces and other parliamentary bodies whose goal it was to solicit the views of Canadians and allow for some consultation.

Though it sometime appeared in the guise of information, i.e., balanced and non-partisan, the images of the CUIO were carefully crafted to ensure that, to paraphrase Walter Lippmann, "the world outside matched the pictures in our heads" (Lippmann, 1922, pp. 3-32). In one sense this is an appropriate frame with which to examine the legacy of the CUIO. Lippmann was speaking of the cultivation of public opinion; this was exactly what the federal government was doing through the CUIO.

The Task Force on Canadian Unity and the Politics of Persuasion

The federal government established another important group to work in parallel with the CUIO. If the CUIO was charged with creating public opinion, another body was needed to give the impression of feedback to the government. This unit needed to be seen as legitimate by the public, have high visibility, appear to go beyond the control of the federal government, and be non-partisan. From these needs was born the Task Force on Canadian Unity.

The Task Force on Canadian Unity was a committee composed of government and non-government opinion leaders. Labour leaders such as Richard Cashin and academics such as Professor Ronald Watts were to serve under the joint leadership of Jean-Luc Pepin and former Ontario premier John Robarts. Their role was to travel throughout Canada holding public hearings to hear the views of Canadians on matters of Canadian unity. (This function was remarkably similar to recent committees studying the federation, such as the Spicer Commission and the Dobbie-Beaudoin Committee, both of 1991.) The national government may have believed that advertising as a vehicle for persuasion and/or education could only be effective if it was one component of a larger communications strategy. The Task Force on Canadian Unity, in conjunction with parliamentary or extra-parliamentary committees, lessens the criticism that advertising is subverting parliamentary practices. Second, it gives the advertising campaign greater legitimacy by the government implicitly saying that they are advertising on a matter of sufficient urgency to warrant scrutiny by a panel of MPs or experts. Though it ultimately did have a less partisan role, the government had thought about using the Pepin-Robarts Committee as a partisan committee. In a memo of July 14, 1977, discussing whether the federal government should undertake the production of propaganda films, the Director of Communication for the CUIO had this to say about the role of the Pepin-Robarts Committee: "If it is felt that such a move [producing films] by the federal government would be too visible or too political then I strongly recommend that Mr. Pepin's crew undertake this type of project. Someone must start thinking about getting `the message' out and we can't simply satisfy ourselves with under-the-table articles" (Dicerni, 1977 p. 1).

While not producing films, the Task Force did wrestle with the idea of how to change public attitudes (Task Force on Canadian Unity, 1979, p. 4). In their final report and recommendations of January 1979, the Task Force said several factors had guided their deliberations. First, institutional and policy reform were seen to be important prerequisites for attitudinal change. Second, was the time constraint that "the challenge Quebec is currently posing to the rest of the country" (ibid., p. 5). A third factor was the expectations of the public. The Task Force believed that "a large number of Canadians assume that it is in the political and constitutional arena that Canada's problems will be resolved." Finally, they argued that attitude change must not be condescending or patronizing. It must not be like "the Sermon on the Mount or a textbook in social psychology," the report said.

These conclusions are similar to those which can be drawn from the government's advertising campaign. All government advertising is pitched at the level of changing and occasionally maintaining attitudes. Attitudinal change is the first locus where behavioural changes are made. This is why advertising can be such an effective mechanism of behaviour modification for government. It allows the use of a potentially non-coercive tool to persuade the reader, through a reasoned argument, of the merits of the government's position. While attitude change is not always necessary for behaviour modification, it does help increase support and compliance with the policy. In the case of the Quebec referendum, attitude change was a sine qua non of behavioural change. The Task Force on Canadian Unity, CUIO, and the government's advertising strategy were all important elements in changing attitudes in Quebec towards the federation.

Government's Justification for the Advertising Approach

Advertising is often defended if it is an attempt to engage the public on an issue of public policy. This "feedback" function is a vital element to a responsive liberal democratic government. According to Karl Deutsch, feedback is "a communications network that produces action in response to an input of information, and includes the results of its own action in the new information by which it modifies subsequent behaviour" (Deutsch, 1963, p. 77). If advertising is a means by which the government can engage the public on issues of importance and modify its policies based on that response, it clearly has a place in democracies. John Plamenatz has put it this way, "what the theorist of democracy has to do is explain how relevant information must be distributed in a vast political community if makers of law and policy are to be responsible to their subjects" (Plamenatz, 1973, p. 177). His argument assumes that information from government about its policies is necessary for citizens to make rational choices.

Underlying the notion that governments perform a feedback function through advertising are several assumptions. First, governments have an interest in hearing what citizens have to say; second, advertising is the most effective means of achieving this goal; and third, governments change their position based on a re-assessment of new information. There is no evidence to support these assumptions. And there is evidence to suggest that the Canadian government pursued these goals through other vehicles. The Pepin-Robarts group was better able to determine "the pulse of the people" than advertising. Second, public opinion polling is a much more efficient way in which to get reliable feedback. Third, the government had an argument it wanted to advance about sovereignty association. Unlike some public policies where modifications to the policy may be acceptable, it was very unlikely that the federal government of the day would change its argument about sovereignty association whatever the degree of popular opposition.

This is not to say that information gathering and dissemination was unimportant to the federal government. As with any communications strategy, this is a vital element in the persuasive process. It is just unlikely that advertising performed this function. One federal document outlined, in high minded prose, the importance of information gathering and dissemination to their strategy:

... the State has an obligation to disseminate information utilized to explain and defend its activities and decisions which involve the future of the nation. In all democratic countries, the citizens have the right to obtain information and documentation, and the right to be informed about the major policies ... of their government. (Williams, n.d., p. 1)

The document went on to say that this was to be accomplished through other vehicles such as exhibitions, production of films, speeches, public opinion polling, and use of press clippings. Communicating the provision of services according to the government "provokes consciousness of the national dimension and which gives a feeling of belonging to the country" (ibid.).

Though the Task Force on Canadian Unity may have given the opposite impression, its purpose was much more directed to information dissemination, rather than information collection. Moreover, the multitude of polling conducted during this time seems to suggest that advertising was not meant to be a barometer of citizens' attitudes; polling accomplished that same task more reliably and at a much less cost.

The final assumption, that governments will modify their position based on citizen "feedback" was not demonstrated during this campaign and, as stated above, seems implausible given the importance of this issue to the national body politic. Rather than an exchange or dialogue with the public, the government's advertising campaign was meant to persuade the public of the merits of keeping Quebec within confederation. The advertisements were meant to reinforce the government's already held beliefs. One federal government document said that the objectives of the advertising campaign were to: "Sensitize Canadians to the variety of Canadian government services by showing that, in many areas ... these services play a useful, necessary and often essential role."

Rhetorical Strategies and Their Impact

The way in which the government advertised may shed light on the goals of the campaign and the legitimacy of advertising on contentious issues. It has already been argued that the goal was not to encourage "feedback" but rather simply to win converts to their existing policy. This may, on the face of it, seem to be undemocratic. After all, information gathering for the purpose of allowing citizen input is an important tenet of a healthy democracy, whereas one sided communication is less tolerated. Our language is careful to make distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate communications by government. The former is labelled by its adherents as "information," the latter is pejoratively called "propaganda." This seems to be precisely the way the Ottawa government was using the term: "We want to distinguish between facts and propaganda and we intend to prepare information which will be available to federal members of Parliament" (Hansard, November 1979, p. 1899). As we shall see, despite Prime Minister Clark's comments to the contrary, the federal government was engaging in a deliberate, persuasive campaign that had little to do with providing balanced information.

Making Arguments Verbally

Advertising, as a form of communication, has its own demands. The ways in which it makes its arguments differs from other forms of communication (Williamson, 1978, pp. 20-40; Jhally, 1987; Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1990, pp. 225-308). Government advertising, however, is no different than commercial advertising. It too relies on the grammar and vocabulary of commercial advertising. Commercial and government advertising are similar in other ways: both make claims about the "product" in question, both use powerfully salient symbols to draw the reader into the ad and both rely on the reader's participation to reach conclusions about the plausibility of the advertisement.

One of the most ancient rhetorical techniques widely used in advertising today is the enthymeme which, according to Aristotle's Rhetoric, was one of the most effective forms of persuasion (Aristotle, 1954, Book II, Chapter 22, p. 139). An enthymeme is a form of a logical proposition, called a syllogism, which suppresses one of the premises. Kathleen Hall Jamieson illustrates what an enthymeme is through this famous logical proposition: "In the classic example, `All men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal,' the enthymeme suppresses the premise `Socrates is a man.' If I assume Socrates is a gummy bear, I will frustrate the arguer's attempt to forge the enthymeme" (1992, p. 61). In eliminating the second premise, the reader must construct the missing part of the logical sentence in order to make sense out of argument. As a persuasive technique, enthymemes have been an important part of political communication through the ages (Jamieson, 1988, p. 18; Lanham, 1991, pp. 65-66).

They are also widely used in political advertising in modern times. One of the most famous political party advertisements, Daisy, used an enthymeme to make a powerful argument. The ad shows a young girl picking off petals from a daisy. As she counts the petals, a more sombre, older male voice begins counting backward from ten as they do when rockets are launched. As he reaches zero, the camera zooms to the girl's eye as a picture of an exploding nuclear mushroom cloud fills the screen. The ad ends with U.S. President Johnson saying "These are the stakes--to make a world in which all of God's children can live. Or to go into the dark. We must love each other or we must die." The announcer then intones "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay at home." The ad capitalized on the widely held notion that the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, was hawkish on nuclear weapons. Though not stated, the enthymeme in this ad was that voting for Goldwater meant voting for nuclear instability or worse, nuclear war.

In Canada during the 1988 federal election one famous Liberal party ad showed the American and Canadian free trade negotiators bargaining over the deal. The American negotiator says, "there's one line I'd like to change." As he points to the 49th parallel he says, "This one here, it's just getting in the way." The enthymeme here is that Canada's sovereignty would be compromised in free trade negotiations. It capitalized on the unstated premise that Brian Mulroney had too close a relationship with the Americans to get a fair deal for Canada.

The effect of this rhetorical technique helps in creating a stronger argument. As Lloyd Bitzer notes: "Because they are jointly produced by the audience, enthymemes intuitively unite speaker and audience and provide the strongest possible proof. ... The audience itself helps construct the proof by which it is persuaded" (Bitzer, 1959, p. 409). Enthymemes were widely used in the referendum advertising. One of the most prominent themes of the federal strategy was to use the federal largesse in Quebec to make a strong pro-federalist argument. This line of argumentation was an enthymatic and can be represented in the following manner with the major premise being stated and the minor premise left unstated: Major premise: The federal government provides valuable services. Minor premise: Quebec separation will eliminate these services. Conclusion: Voting No in the referendum will affect provision of valuable federal services.

One of the important results of making such as case was that it moved the debate to less contentious terrain. Ostensibly, the government was merely advertising its services. There was no explicit verbal argument. This poses a problem to some critics as it appears that the government is merely providing "information," as Joe Clark said it did. By distancing itself from the argument, the federal government was insulated from the criticism that it was advertising on inappropriate subjects. Thus, enthymemes become a very important technique in how the government communicates on contentious issues.

It also tells us that we are not as well equipped to decipher arguments from non-verbal cues as we are from verbal cues. This privileging of the verbal over non-verbal means that though an argument may be powerfully stated visually, the tools to analyze it are less refined than if it was verbal. Early government as well as non-government advertisements relied heavily upon words to make a claim. Many argue that as a result of the pre- eminence of the written, these advertisements are informative or objective. Many modern advertisements rely to a great extent on visual images to make an argument. While equally capable of communicating arguments, these images are often called un-informative or persuasive. What is not clearly understood is that language, like any symbolic code, is subject to decoding (see the examples given in Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1990, pp. 240- 246). The text or language of an ad is merely a code about which we have a high degree of consensus. Visual symbols, about which we have less consensus, are more reliant on subjective decoding. Their meaning is generated from association.

Making Arguments Through Symbols

Establishing a link between your product and a positive correlate or the competition's product and a negative correlate is a strategy common to almost all advertising (Williamson, 1978, chaps. 1 and 2). Using symbols, advertising imbues meaning to items which previously had no meaning. In the language of semiotics, advertising has a first order or denotative aspect of communication, and a second order or connotative aspect of communication (Barthes, 1980, p. 123). The first order of meaning is explicitly presented, the second order is the context in which that explicit presentation is understood. Saussure, the father of modern semiotics, used different terms for the same concepts (Culler, 1986). In his typology, communication is comprised of sign systems. Each sign is a combination of a signifier and signified. The signifier is the physical manifestation of the argument while the signified is the abstract concept that the signifier connotes.

The skilful manipulation of symbols may help to make a powerful argument less contentious. For the federal government, the importance of making a strong link between slogans (the signifier) and the argument (signified) was an important consideration. David Cameron called slogans used by the P.Q. as the "PQ's warm fuzzies" (Cameron, 1980 p. 1. Subsequent quotations in this paragraph are from this source). Semioticians might more accurately say they are the signifiers for which the signified was unclear. These word-signs were the popular phrases of this era used to describe Quebec after the referendum: nouvelle entente, sovereignty association, and D'égal à égal. On the eve of the referendum Cameron argued that the federal government needed to more clearly establish "unpleasant correlates" of these signs. Both the federalist argument and the perceived ramifications of the sovereigntist case needed to be made clear. Cameron suggested it be communicated that sovereignty association would "increase taxes ... unemployment ... and the cost of living by x%," that it would "throw away Quebec's right to Canada's resources." He even mused about using such vivid slogans as "The P.Q. wants a mandate to take Quebec down a dead-end road" and "The PQ's `nouvelle entente' means that every 8th (or 10th or whatever) Quebecker would agree to being thrown out of work. Which would it be--you or your neighbour?"

Not surprisingly, these "hard-sell" slogans were not used because they probably violated one of the federal government's main strategies: to "reduce tensions between the federal authority and the Quebec government" (Hansard, November 1979, p. 1625). It would certainly open up the federal government to charges of interfering in a provincial matter. Aside from this legalistic question of authority, the same argument of federal interference was made about advertising which relied on implicit arguments.

Notwithstanding this, the federal government opted for what the Minister of Federal-Provincial Relations called "factual information, not propaganda in all [its] communication" ("Chretien `Not Sorry' for Ad Blitz," 1980, p. 1). This "factual information" took various forms. Unity kits which supplied the reader with a variety of reasons to support federalism were made available to all MPs. In Quebec magazines, federal advertising took the form of a two page spread featuring a self-adhesive flag headlined with "Show the Flag ...Proudly!" The copy goes on to say: "Because there are times in every country when patriotism must speak louder than words ... show the flag" ("Unity Campaign Launched in Quebec," 1979, p. 31). Even with Canada Day advertisements, ads which are not usually known for their informational value, the Quebec campaign had greater connotative meaning. Throughout English speaking Canada the benign slogan "Canada, I want to Shake Your Hand" was used. Contrast this to the more political slogan used in Quebec: "Canada, Un Beau Pays, Un Pays Libre" ("Canada Day Ads: $630,000," 1977, p. 1). Tourism Canada ran ads which reminded Quebeckers, as tourists, the Rocky Mountains provided "so much to stay for." These were hardly examples of "neutral information," but rather made a strong federalist argument. The Minister of Justice defended the ads saying "[i]t's all advertising of the Canadian government departments to the people of Quebec, like we do in other provinces too" ("Chretien `Not Sorry' for Ad Blitz," 1980, p. 1).

Like the péquiste government, Ottawa flooded the airwaves in the dying days of the referendum. For example in the greater Montreal region, on the T.V.A. network the federal government had 11 advertisements on May 14, 1980. On the May 15, 16 were broadcast. The next two days the federal government showed 23 advertisements each day. During the penultimate day of the referendum campaign, May 18, the government flooded the airwaves with 29 advertisements all bearing the "Canada" wordmark (Stark, 1992, p. 27).

The federal government was aware of its vulnerability. One of its communications strategy documents said:

Le P.Q. critiquera probablement les aspects suivants de la publicité fédérale:
A. Son Ampleur: Il soulignera l'orgie de dépenses fédérales qui vise à acheter le référendum.
B. Son Contenu: Il s'attaquera particulièrement aux commerciaux radio.... Il soulignera que cette publicité n'est que de la propagande.
C. La Légalité: Sans aller jusqu'à dire que c'est illégal, il mentionnera probablement que cette publicité est immorale et que le fédéral semble se foutre de la loi référendaire québécoise. ("Publicité fédérale," n.d., p. 1)

This may have also helped guide its advertising strategy during this period. Aware of these problems, the federal government could advocate the same arguments without making them explicitly. By arguing about the federal largesse in the province, by making a strong implicit case for the benefits of a federal government and by refuting the P.Q.'s claims about the benefits of sovereignty, the federal government was using persuasive advertising masked as "informational advertising."

Why did the federal government not simply argue that voting no in the referendum might cause a loss of services in Quebec? The answer is that the audience to whom the advertisement was directed was deeply divided over the referendum question. To enter into the fray directly might alienate them or at least give them reason to doubt the federal government's motives. The degree of contention surrounding a policy directly affects the way in which the policy is advertised. Contentious policies, such as the Quebec referendum, must rely on enthymemes and implicit arguments to establish their case. This does not mean that the argument is a weak one. The case of the famous Daisy advertisement shows that the message can be communicated powerfully without being made explicitly. Non-contentious advertising, however, can be explicit in its claims. The Participaction advertising of the early 1980s, which told the now-famous story of the 60-year-old Swede who was as fit as the average Canadian, is an example of this. Even after it was uncovered that this statistic was completely fabricated, there was no political fallout because of the degree of consensus surrounding the message of the ad (see Christie, 1990, p. A1).

During the referendum there were deep divisions in Quebec surrounding the merits of the federal case. Arguments made in advertising, therefore, relied much more on implicit strategies. Sometimes these implicit arguments are so transparent, the connotative and denotative elements become blurred. For example, one (in)famous federal advertisement from this period advertised the dangers of smoking. Sponsored by Department of National Health and Welfare the ad showed someone smoking; accompanying the picture in huge letters were the words "Non, merci." While ostensibly related to the perils of smoking, this advertisement was clearly communicating another message that was probably not lost on anyone.

The privileging of written, explicit arguments over implicit, visual arguments is, to use Harold Innis's phrase, a "bias of communication" (Innis, 1951). Innis was referring to a "bias" within each medium of communication that colours our perception. Using space and time as his criteria, Innis wrote that durable communication (such as papyrus and clay tablets) had a time bias. It had longevity but could not be easily transported. The effect of this is to limit communication to a relatively small group of people. Modern communication, such as radio and television, has a space bias. It can travel over great distances easily but does not have durability which means that communication is widely transmitted but lacks permanence. In the same way as Innis's space/time bias affects the way in which communication is received, modern advertising of any sort may be said to have a verbal/non-verbal bias. Non-verbal arguments rely on association to make an argument. They use salient symbols to reinforce the argument. Verbal arguments are able to make an explicit argument (though they too, often use association to make their case). Marshall McLuhan was correct when he wrote almost 30 years ago, "the unconscious depth-messages of ads are never attacked by the literate because of the incapacity to notice or discuss nonverbal forms of arrangement and meaning. They have not the art to argue with pictures" (McLuhan, 1964, p. 231, emphasis added).

Quebec's Approach: A Rhetorical Mirror Image

On January 5, 1980 the offices of the CUIO and other lead agencies of the federal government received a telegram:



This was the first sally in a continuing battle between the federal and provincial governments over the appropriate limitations of the federal effort. In the months preceding this, the federal government made similar accusations about the P.Q. communications strategy. That the Quebec government launched its own advertising tirade, unparalleled to any other provincial government before or since, should not be much of a surprise. What is noteworthy however, is that the P.Q. government communications plan was similar in strategy, scope, and form to the federal efforts.

Like its federal counterparts, the P.Q. supplemented its advertising with detailed "informational" documents that provided the economic and political rationale for its case. One of the first was produced in June 1979 at the P.Q.'s Congrès national where the party produced an outline of the relationship between a sovereign Quebec and the rest of Canada. Entitled D'égal à égal this document set the foundation for a subsequent White Paper. Released November 1, 1979, the White Paper, Quebec-Canada: A New Deal, built on the demands of D'égal à égal and spelled out clearly how political sovereignty and economic association would be possible. There are, however, plenty of good discussions about the substance of these documents and would serve little use to discuss them here (see, for example, McRoberts, 1989, chap. 9). So popular was the provincial government's White Paper that the government was left scrambling to print more after its initial run of 100,000 copies sold out in a week. Apparently, even the three dollar price tag did not deter Quebeckers from rushing out and purchasing the document (Ruimy, 1979, p. 1).

During the summer of 1979 the provincial government laid the groundwork for its case in the fall and the following year for sovereignty association. In addition to D'égal à égal the province undertook a study on the economic impact of the St. Lawrence Seaway which, according to the federal government "underscored the nationalist view of victimization" in Quebec ("Responding to Quebec Initiatives," 1979, p. 1). Subsequent quotations in this paragraph are from this source). The summer also saw the release of a 523-page document entitled Building Quebec--A Perspective Of Economic Policy. The document was seen to be "as much an attack on a variety of federal policies and programs as a blueprint for Quebec's future." The Parti québécois government also commissioned a film on the coming to power of the P.Q. and the promise this held. Produced at a cost of $67,000, by l'Institut québécois du cinéma (a provincial body roughly equivalent to the National Film Board) le Québec est au monde was so controversial that the Institute dissociated itself from the final product (Petrowski, 1979, p. 1). All of this material was, as the federal government correctly pointed out, "grist for the referendum debate. It provide[d] ready argumentation as to the breakdown of federalism." Though the date of the referendum (May 20, 1980) was set in November 1979, the campaign was well underway before that.

According to the federal government, the amount of money spent by the P.Q. government on "communications" rose steadily from $124 million in 1977, to $135 million in 1978, to $149 million in 1979 to $157 million in 1980, a $33 million increase in three years ("Evolution des dépenses du Gouvernement du Québec categorie: communications," n.d., p. 1). The increases associated with publicity during part of this period, for which data was available, suggest a similar trend. In 1975, the provincial Liberal government spent $4.7 million on publicity. Over the next three years the P.Q. government spent $5.8 million, $6.1 million, and $12.5 million on publicity ("Publicité du P.Q. et du oui," n.d., p. 1). In advertising as such, the figures in the following table indicate a dramatic rise in advertising expenditures for the P.Q. government especially from 1977 to 1978 where advertising more than doubled. In 1978 the Quebec government spent more on advertising than the "big three" auto firms, Labatt breweries, or Coca Cola. While a fraction of the provincial government's total expenditures, the rise in advertising may suggest an increase in attention to this form of communication.

Quebec Government Advertising, 1975-80

One of the ways in which the money was spent for publicity and increased communications included government sponsored publicity tours for Quebec MNAs to other parts of Canada. According to a federal memo to the Minister of Federal-Provincial Relations, William Jarvis, the P.Q. MNAs "sought to attack federalism and encourage an appreciation of sovereignty association as sensible." David R. Cameron, then director of communication in the CUIO, argued that a Western tour of Quebec MNAs could be

more fully understood as part of a broad information and communication programme which the government of Quebec has had underway for some time and which is shaped by two overall objectives:
1. to present sovereignty association to people outside of Quebec in as positive manner as possible;
2. to convince Quebeckers that people outside Quebec--whatever they may say now--will accept the sovereignty association arrangement when it comes. (Cameron, 1979, p. 1)

Ingenious advertising campaigns rich in connotative meaning complemented the publicity of the Quebec government. Advertisements which ostensibly had little to do with the referendum and did not communicate any explicit arguments for or against the referendum may have played an important role in reinforcing the Quebec government's position. For example, the Ministry of Transport ran a series of advertisements which exclaimed "On s'attache au Québec" ostensibly designed to persuade Quebeckers to use their seat belts. Translated as "everyone buckles up in Quebec," it could also be read on another level as "everyone is attached to Quebec." The slogan of the ministry of industry and commerce was as equally oblique: "Envoyons de l'avant nos gens" (Let's put our people ahead), exclaimed the billboards of Operation Solidarité Economique. Read in a different way, this slogan could be an incomplete argument for voting oui in the referendum. Throughout the referendum, the government of Quebec sponsored advertisements which were billed as "une page dans l'historire des québecois." One such advertisement celebrated the fortieth anniversary of women's enfranchisement. The text discussed many of the advances made by women over the last 40 years. In large print on the bottom of the ad was the "punch line": "On veut l'égalité" (see La Presse, April 25, 1980, p. A7). While supposedly referring to the status of women, it does not require a large leap to apply this argument to all of Quebec society.

Even choosing the word "sovereignty" instead of independence was calculated to elicit the proper connotative meaning. Using the language of marketing, P.Q. leader Jacques Parizeau said in 1992 words equally appropriate to the referendum debate of 1980: "Sovereignty as a word has been a marketing trademark of the P.Q. for twenty years because the word independence used to be frightening. I'm not going to change the logo. Does sovereignty have the same meaning today as independence? Of course it does" (Serrill, 1992, p. 28). It was during the last stretch of the referendum campaign that both levels of government pulled all stops in their advertising war. During the month of April 1980, the Quebec government spent $210,000 on television advertisements in the Montreal region alone compared to the federal government which had spent $180,000 (Lefebvre, 1980 p. 1).

These expenditures did not go unnoticed by the Opposition in Quebec. The Union Nationale (UN) demanded an accounting of the funds spent by the P.Q. on advertising since they assumed office in 1976. Their report concluded that "a very large part of the public funds has been used for more than two years to advance messages under cover of being in the public interest which has served partisan ends in a very subtle manner" (Chambers, 1979, p. 21).

The Opposition's objections in Quebec were not about the increase in expenditure on advertising, but rather whether many of the ad campaigns "could be justified in terms of disseminating useful information to the public" (ibid., emphasis added). This suggests that the criticism was not about scope of the campaign but rather the contentiousness of the message. Had the ads communicated "useful information," as suggested by the UN, we can imagine their criticism being quelled. The advertising campaign became the most visible symbol for the Opposition's disdain for the government position in the referendum. It became a metonym for the policy. When the Opposition complained about the lack of useful information, they were actually objecting to the lack of balance in the ads or the fact that the ads had a strong implicit message in them which was antithetical to their position in the referendum.


The federal government in the 1980 referendum was engaging in persuasion. It had an interest in "selling" the federalist position through advertising, supplemented by the Pepin-Robarts Committee and the CUIO. Though the advertising was not balanced or non-partisan it was still legitimate. As Mark Yudof argues "government is sometimes uniquely situated to gather and disseminate particular types of information. And in some cases governments may be the only entities with resources willing to present a particular side of a public issue. The majority, as represented by its elected officials, has a right to speak" (1983, p. 46). According to Yudof, governments have an obligation to persuade the public of issues they deem important. A stronger test might be that communication by government is warranted only when the security of the state is in jeopardy. One could argue this was the case during the Quebec referendum.

The 1980 referendum provides us with an example of how the techniques used by government in its advertising are dependent upon the type of issue being advertised. On controversial issues, such as the referendum, it resorts to using implicit arguments which have the effect of shielding the government from opposition criticism. Both the federal and provincial governments, relied on connotative advertising for these reasons. In addition, this case may suggest that advertising by government is often accompanied by other means of promotion and persuasion.

During crises, communication is a potent weapon in any government's arsenal. As one of the most pervasive and influential means of communication, advertising represents an important means by which the state can reach mass publics. Rather than providing "information," advertising is an inherently persuasive form of communication. Using both semiotics and rhetorical techniques, this paper has attempted to show how advertising for the purposes of providing information is a mask for persuasive advertising. The example of the 1980 Quebec referendum advertising campaign may have provided an important precedent in the conduct of the federal government during the most recent constitutional crisis.


I would like to thank Professor Ed Black for his helpful advice in the preparation of this paper and Todd Arnedt for his assistance in the French translation.
Though introduced in Parliament in July, it received regulatory authority on August 4, 1977 where it began as an adjunct of the Secretary of State. In December 1978, the CUIO was transferred to Department of Justice where it remained until its demise on March 31, 1985.
A 200-page document sent to all Quebec MPs and Senators detailed the work of the federal government in that province. The briefing book categorized the work by department, amount of money invested in projects, and the location of on-going projects. See National Archives of Canada, RG 137, 84-8/585, Box 22, File "Présence fédérale au Québec."
The terms of reference are found in P.C. 1977-1910 (July 5, 1977). See also Task Force on Canadian Unity, A Future Together: Observations and Recommendations (Ottawa: Supply & Services Canada, 1979), p. 135.
National Archives of Canada, RG 137, Acc. 84-85/574, Box 16, File 2530-1 ("Federal Government Corporate Advertising"); no title on document. As was the case with some documents in the National Archives, author origin is difficult to ascertain. One needs to draw conclusions about the context of the document based on the other documents in the file. In this case, the file deals with documents outlining the strategy of federal government's advertising campaigns.
The writing on propaganda is legion. It was brought into the social science literature by Harold Lasswell's "Theory of Propaganda," American Political Science Review (1927). Some of the better-known works include Terence Qualter, Propaganda and Psychological Warfare (New York: Random House, 1962); Garth S. Jowett & Victoria O'Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1986); and Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).
The fact that the federal government was incurring expenses in the referendum and was ultra vires the jurisdiction of the P.Q. government's regulations was one of the main concerns of the provincial government. See Lewis Harris, "A $6 Million Referendum Loophole," Montreal Gazette, August 9, 1980, p. 29.
The report in which the charges are made is called Étude portant sur les contrats de publicité octroyes par le gouvernement québécois au cours des années 1975 à 1978 pars l'Assemblee nationale, Québec, mars 1979.


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