In 2021 the Canadian government turned to social media influencers to promote federal initiatives on multiple occasions, from the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to Winterlude ‘staycations,’ spending more than $600,000 in the process, according to a CTV News analysis.
Seeking out influencers—social media users often with large followings who often use their platforms to make money by promoting products or events—to amplify government messages is a relatively new strategy being deployed by administrations across the world, and Canada is no exception.
According to a CTV News analysis of documents recently tabled in the House of Commons, more than a dozen federal departments and agencies employed influencers to help get their messages out in the last year.
“Influencers or creators online do a really good job of building a tight-knit community, a niche community, who have a shared interest, shared experiences. And we know that people are most convinced to change their minds on something or change their behaviors when they connect with the message,” said Elizabeth Dubois, a University of Ottawa professor whose work focuses on the intersections of communications, technology, and politics.
“And so influencers and creators are really great at tailoring messages to particular audiences. A big pro of making use of these kinds of influencers to get government messages out is you can reach specific communities.”
The figures, presented in response to an inquiry from the Conservatives, show that of the federal entities who disclosed their related spending between Jan. 1, 2021 and Jan. 31, 2022, Health Canada was the top spending department when it came to contracting influencers.
The bulk of their bill, which amounted to more than $130,600, was for an “influencer campaign in support of the COVID-19 vaccination marketing and advertising campaign.”
As part of this public-relations effort, the department contracted digital marketing firm “Mr & Mrs Jones Inc.” to help them plan and develop the campaign, sign on and pay influencers, and monitor the content produced.
“The influencer campaign complemented the Government of Canada’s overall strategy to help everyone in Canada make an informed decision about COVID-19 vaccines,” said the department.
More than a dozen influencers then took to their accounts to share information about the Government of Canada’s vaccination campaign. Among them was self-described model and actor Sukhman Gill, who shared a post about making an informed decision when it came to rolling up his sleeve to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“During these crazy times there was a lot of false information that was being spread. Personally, I wanted to make sure I was getting the right information, so I decided to visit the Government of Canada website to learn more about COVID-19 vaccines. Right off the bat I learnt a bunch of things that made me feel much better and answered a lot of my questions,” he wrote to his currently nearly 20,000 Instagram followers.
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A post shared by Sukhman Gill | Model | Actor (@iamsukhmangill)
French-speaking influencer “@jemmyechd” posted a video discussing what factored into her decision to get vaccinated, encouraging her followers to visit the government’s vaccine information website. As of publication, her Instagram bio page still includes a link that directs people to that COVID-19 vaccine link.
As part of this contract, and most others that the government disclosed, it was a requirement to make a public disclaimer that the content was sponsored and that influencer was being paid by the government. Though, this was not the case with all of the deals CTV News analyzed.
Dubois said that as the government’s use of influencer campaigns picks up, it’s important that paid government messages be labeled as such, describing the current landscape as “a bit of a gray zone.”
Destination Canada was another federal entity that reported contracting influencers. The national tourism promotion agency reported that it had paid partnerships with NHL defenceman P.K. Subban and NBA player Kyle Lowry in 2021, however the agency did not specify which vendors they worked with, nor would they disclose how much they spent, claiming that doing so could compromise their strategies and “competitive position.”
Subban’s partnership was part of a “Canada is the home of winter” campaign and involved sharing a video “through paid and organic amplification” both on Subban and Destination Canada social media channels.
Lowry—who is not Canadian but is well known here for his time on the Toronto Raptors—was also involved in a Destination Canada campaign with an unknown price tag. The partnership saw Lowry participate in, and then share a video featuring him as well as messages from fans saying they missed him because the team was playing the basketball season in the U.S. due to pandemic restrictions, according to the agency’s filing.
Canadian Heritage engaged influencers last year in their efforts to promote events, and in some examples did engage in what appears to be micro-targeting, by partnering with influencers based in different cities to promote local events.
For example, the department spent $120,000 in contracts with tourism groups in six different provinces this past December that included paying local influencers, to promote Winterlude’s national ice carving championship in their region this winter.
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A post shared by Joselyne Effa | Mom blogger (@joselyne.effa)
“Do you guys do staycations? I actually forgot how nice it is to just get out of your home… Couldn’t have asked for a better weekend, the kids had an amazing time out at the rink, watching the ice carving!” wrote Saskatchewan-based self-described “lifestyle and family blogger” Joselyne Effa in a post on her Instagram page, which currently has more than 18,000 followers.
A similar approach was taken by Canadian Heritage when it came to getting the word out about their “Christmas Lights Across Canada” event, seeing influencers from the National Capital Region post about the event.
To promote their “See it all” campaign last spring, Telefilm Canada worked with a dozen influencers, seeing them take to social media to promote Canadian cinema.
In a post in French on his Instagram account, which currently has more than 40,000 followers, Montreal-based and self-described “instababe” Karl Hardy wrote about the role cinema has played in his life and promoting the Telefilm Canada online catalogue.
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A post shared by KARL HARDY (@karl_hardy)
“For government in particular, it might be really valuable to go for what are called ‘micro-influencers,’ which are smaller follower count influencers who are really connected to a particular community rather than those really large scale ones,” Dubois said.
The Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation (CDIC)—a federal Crown corporation—reported that it spent more than $95,300 on influencer campaigns to promote confidence in the Canadian financial system, but did not disclose who they contracted for this work, citing privacy considerations.
In explaining why they sought out influencers for this work, CDIC said that “working with influencers to craft messaging that resonates with their community is an effective way to reach demographics that may not engage with traditional media channels.”
Seeking to reach diverse groups and non-traditional media consumers was also an approach taken by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, and the Privy Council Office in their use of smaller-scale campaigns discussing a range of issues including Indigenous History Month, and to disseminate culturally-appropriate information about COVID-19.
Aiming for a broader audience, Export Development Canada (EDC) teamed up with recognizable personalities in the Canadian business community to promote their work.
They ran a $120,000 campaign that saw Canadian entrepreneurs and Dragons Den personalities Michelle Romanow and Nicolas Duvernois create, produce and promote content related to a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) awareness campaign.
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A post shared by Michele Romanow (@micheleromanow)
“Export Development Canada was my trusted partner to grow my business in the United States. It can be intimidating to scale internationally but it doesn’t have to be,” wrote Romanow, directing her currently 60,000 Instagram followers to learn more about what EDC does.
In their filing, EDC noted that the cost of the campaign was for more than paying the influencers to post, it stitched in other costs including production and management fees.
The agency also noted that the budget per influencer was “subjective based on the value of the influencer.” In determining this value, the agency said it considered among other factors, the level of influence based on follower count.
Assessing the value of influencers’ posts, including statistics on engagement is something Dubois said is common place in the industry, though she cautioned that as turning to influencers becomes a more commonplace advertising tactic, governments should have steps in place to ensure that their collaborators aren’t inflating their numbers through the use of bots or other account manipulations.
“These kinds of statistics that are used to determine how valuable a given influencer is, can be manipulated. And we want to make sure that whenever government is spending money on these kinds of things, they’re doing it in a way that’s going to be you know, a ‘best bang for your buck’ situation,” she said.