It was supposed to be an "information campaign" not a "persuasion campaign." At least, that's how Finance Minister Kevin Falcon initially sold the government's decision to spend $5 million on harmonized sales tax advertising. Indeed, the campaign's first round of commercials, which were put together by top ad agency DDB Canada Inc., seemed to live up to that commitment.
For example, one of them showed a stick figure visiting an Internet chat room where people are arguing over the HST. It then prompted viewers to go a government Website - HSTinBC.ca - for more information about the tax.
Sounds pretty innocuous, right?
To be sure, there was some controversy over those ads because that Website has been criticized as being biased in favour of the HST. But what happened next was even more controversial.
The campaign's second round of commercials included two that showed how prices had changed because of harmonization. But the comparators they used appeared to favour the HST.
The commercials didn't show how prices for basic cable, bicycles, used clothing or a list of other essentials had gone up because of harmonization.
Instead, one showed how there was "more tax" on candy but the "same tax" on soap and "no tax" on milk or apples.
The other showed how lower income British Columbians are receiving HST rebate cheques now that there's "more tax" on coffee but the "same tax" on pump prices and transit fares, as well as "less tax" on disposable diapers.
So, if you're keeping score, that means those commercials said seven positive things about the HST compared to two sort of negative things - but only if you're a coffee drinker or candy eater.
In addition, the commercials didn't show how the only other items you're presently paying less for under the HST are short-term auto rentals, vehicles costing over $55,000, alcoholic beverages, hotel rooms and residential energy.
But who could disagree with cheaper diapers?
Interestingly, the ads used the narrative of stick figures driving a baby carriage and shopping for groceries - activities that are arguably more relatable for women than men.
That isn't surprising since polling shows women are less supportive of the HST than men and, therefore, in need of more convincing to back it.
For example, according to the latest Ipsos-Reid Corp. survey, just 30 percent of women favour keeping that tax, compared to 41 percent of men.
Indeed, convincing voters to support the HST seems to have been the only purpose of another stick figure advertisement stating harmonization "reduces bureaucracy and small business costs."
But, despite having earlier agreed the government would also be running ads showing any upside of returning to a provincial sales tax system, Mr. Falcon has since said no such commercials will be produced.
Speaking exclusively with Public Eye, Mr. Falcon stated that's because "there isn't any positive of moving back" to the PST.
Now, the government is running a new round of commercials promoting their fix to the HST - which will see the tax dropped from 12 to 10 percent by 2014.
Each of them shows stick figures arguing about the HST and the PST before being interrupted by news that "Government Listens, Makes HST Changes."
That news then prompts the stick figures arguing in favour of scrapping the tax to make a "hmmm" sound.
But the downside details of the promised fix - such as the fact it will take three years to come into full effect and result in the postponement of a planned small business tax cut - are nowhere to be found in those ads.
So, with a little over a month left before the HST referendum ballots are counted, what was sold as the "information campaign" seems to have become a "persuasion campaign." And it's quite possible the government will be punished for that apparent flipflop.
After all, when the campaign was launched, Mr. Falcon predicted, "If we try to turn this into a sales job, the public reaction would boomerang and we'd get nowhere."