OTTAWA—Between Feb. 1 and March 13 of this year, functionaries in some of the most powerful corners of the federal government, including the finance department and Prime Minister’s Office, were seized with a series of pressing questions.
Should the teenage boy on the cover of the upcoming budget, for instance, be really happy with a big smile, or just sort of happy with a smaller smile?
Should the little girl in the next photo be holding a soccer ball, or playing the cello? Actually, what about an electric guitar? No, wait, let’s make it an acoustic guitar — but make sure you add some music notes floating in the air.
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Such were the preoccupations of government officials that are detailed in a 607-page trove of documents released recently to the Ottawa-based investigative journalism website, Blacklocks. They pertain to the Liberal government’s meticulous planning for the design of the 2017 budget cover — the physical front and back of the book — as well as accompanying fact sheets, web advertisements and explanatory videos.
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The whopper in the release, first reported last week, is that the finance department spent $ 212,234 on this exercise. That figure was compared with what the former Conservative government spent on budget covers, which, at a reported $ 600 in one instance, appears paltry — or frugal — in comparison.
But, of course, the $ 212,000 cost of the current regime’s budget cover also included ad spending and videos for the 2017 budget’s website. Still, the documents show that just the photo shoot for the four images on the budget cover — actors posed at a studio in Montreal — cost the public $ 24,990.
The stack of emails and design details also provides a look into how carefully this government can manage the images it releases.
In early February, Natalie Rieger, senior marketing advisor in the finance department, nailed down an agreement with the advertising giant, McCann. Their Montreal office would design the budget cover, draw up the factsheets and make promotional videos. The McCann team of copywriters and artists got to work and appeared to liaise regularly with Rieger as their work progressed.
The government’s priorities were outlined in a background document provided to the agency. Ottawa wanted the design and advertisements to be “friendly and positive” and targeted to “all Canadians, with a focus on families, seniors and businesses.”
The government wanted to highlight what it considered chief accomplishments and priorities for the Justin Trudeau regime. These included the tax cut for a middle-income bracket, their re-jigged payout scheme for families with kids, planned enhancements to the Canada Pension Plan, billions of dollars committed for infrastructure and their “innovation agenda.”
The finance department also instructed the agency to consult with Ottawa “regarding the depiction of minority groups.”
By Feb. 6, Rieger was in touch with officials from the Privy Council Office — what’s often called the “nerve centre” of the bureaucracy that supports the cabinet and prime minister.
Over the next five weeks, chains of emails show detailed discussions between Rieger, the higher-ups in government and the McCann agency. They zeroed in on the concept they liked — the cover would depict an arrangement of four photographs, each one representing a “pillar” of the budget vision. The government liked the agency’s idea to add “chalk” drawings on top of the photos. These would be “superimposed onto real-life contexts to illustrate visions of the future.”
For the “innovation and skills” category, they wanted a “female older millennial” in her mid 30s, or “perhaps early 40s Gen Xer,” one email suggested. An “elderly man” fit the bill for their vision of “Stronger Canada,” while a “young girl,” maybe 7 or 8, would fit well into the “Fair Government” category, which would reflect their commitments to building a country where any child can achieve their dreams.
Finally, for “Infrastructure,” the poster boy would be a “sharply dressed” teenager wearing “mid-tone colours” and glasses. This last piece of attire received particular attention, with the ad agency even offering a mockup of the shape and size of the glasses in one of their missives to Ottawa.
Dan Lauzon, the director of communications for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, appears to have settled the matter in an email Feb. 23. “I vote glasses,” he wrote. “Put me on team hipster.”
But there was also the matter of the actors themselves. Whose faces should be the faces of the 2017 budget? Sorry, it’s #Budget2017 (an official made a point of underlining the importance of that capital B).
Following their instructions to consult on the depictions of minorities, a McCann executive wrote: “We would like to know about ethnicities you would like us to cover. Asian? Native? Indian? Latino? There are four models, so we will have to choose.”
The agency provided a host of options, prompting Rieger to ask if “No. 2” for one of the categories is Indigenous. The response came that Indigenous people “are identified by the yellow squares.”
They went with No. 2 — the future engineer with the “hipster” glasses.
1. Light bulb
After ditching plans for a graduation hat, the government settled on a light bulb to represent the flash of brilliance for the woman on the boat (which is supposed to be an icebreaker, by the way). Emails show they took pains to make sure the bulb was an LED, rather than one of the old-fashioned, kilojoule-gobbling variety.
2. Heart monitor
Initially, this was to show the man’s blood pressure reading. Presumably to remain “positive,” as their mandate dictated, it read a perfect 120/80. But for reasons that documents fail to explain, the decision was made to go with the basic heart and pulse reading. From this, the viewer can conclude that the smiling man in the chair is, indeed, alive.
3. The hand
The man is reaching out to grasp the faceless outline of a hand that enters the frame from nowhere. Several emails pertained to the existence of this hand. It’s meant to be the warm and affecting touch of a caregiver. Judging by the man’s expression, he’s more than happy to accept the touch of a disembodied cartoon figure.
The teenage boy, who is supposed to portray a future engineer, is wearing glasses. But this wasn’t an automatic choice. Like pretty much everything else, it was considered with care. In the end, this discussion reaped one of the most memorable quotes from the email trove: “I vote glasses,” said the official from the finance department. “Put me on team hipster.”
5. The iPad
Yes, that’s an iPad. Originally it was an amp, because the girl was rocking out at high voltage on an imaginary electric guitar. That changed when they switched to the smoother vibe of an acoustic. But they still wanted some technology, so after some debate about where it should be placed and whether it should have a cord plugged into something — well, you can see the result.