Ontario’s “The Future is Electric” Media Campaign Reveals the Importance of Framing in Energy Politics

Adam M.
6 min readOct 4, 2023

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If you live in Ontario — you have probably seen one of the Provincial Government’s “The Future is Electric” commercials or posters that promote the government’s strategic plan to manufacture electric vehicle parts and automobiles in the last year. The advertisements portray frozen Ontarians outfitted with static hair and vintage clothing set in retro-looking science fairs, doctor’s offices, and auto shops. The advertisement characters become ‘electrified’ upon reading punchy headlines describing Ontario’s electric future.

The campaign is promoting Ontario’s strategic plan to become a leading manufacturer of electric automotive parts and vehicles. The plan reveals the aim to link up mineral and resource extraction in Northern Ontario with electric automotive assembly plants in Southern Ontario. In theory, this will create self-sustainability in the emerging industry while producing thousands of jobs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

These commercials are noteworthy in that what you usually see in government advertisements are serious, realistic, and informative portrayals of what is being promoted — rather than artistically distinctive and eccentric depictions of an idea. In the age of mass media, where politics, news, and public discourse are bleeding together in virtual spaces, it is understandable that the Ontario government is beginning to think outside of the box when it comes to promoting government initiatives.

“The Future is Electric” promotional materials combine elements of nostalgia and scientific innovation to effectively portray the automotive strategy plan in a positive light.

It can be argued that the government is making use of what sociologists call framing. Erving Goffman, the theorist who coined the term, described framing as the way information is presented to an audience and how it is interpreted by the audience’s distinctive set of experiences, symbols, knowledge, language, and cultural toolkits, all of which constitute the ‘frame’ that is used to interpret the information. Moreover, the presenter of information can use their understanding of culture, language, knowledge, and symbols to help shape the frame that audiences will use to interpret the information.

In the case of advertising, framing is utilized to evoke specific feelings and conclusions in viewers by employing visuals, descriptions, symbols, and more.

The Ontario government’s “The Future is Electric” advertisements strategically use nostalgic and recognizable visuals, particularly from the 1980s, to yield feelings of comfort and familiarity.

The promotional materials depict vintage backgrounds of characteristic 1980s households furnished with pastel pinks, intricate upholstery, thick wool carpets, and floral patterns; a traditional science fair set in a school plastered with oranges and teals; and a doctor’s office reception room painted in vibrant shades of salmon, turquoise, and ochre.

Pictured from ONgov YouTube channel’s “The Future Is Electric (:30)”

Through these backdrops, the tone of these commercials — and the information they are conveying — is distinctly nostalgic. They feel familiar to all viewers, from older folks who may have grown up and gone through early adulthood living and working in places like these, to younger generations recognizing these settings through popular films and television including Back to the Future and Stranger Things.

Situating the promotional material’s information in this warm, nostalgic setting sets the frames that people view it with. Inciting nostalgia and rosy retrospection — a psychological phenomenon where individuals recall the past favourably in comparison to the present — is a clever way to drum up unconscious positive emotions for the information being conveyed in the commercial.

The backdrops are not the only nostalgic element of the advertisements; the static hair effect portrayed calls back to common childhood experiences of elementary school science classes and, in Ontario specifically, field trips to the Ontario Science Centre. Another segment of the commercial depicts an ‘electrified’ woman following along with a stereotypically 1980s-style fitness routine. The background synth music and vintage clothing styles further contribute to the 1980s atmosphere.

There is also an undercurrent of ‘innovation’ spread throughout the promotional materials. The school science fair scene, which serves as one of the main still-image advertisements online, pictures an iconic potato battery science stand winning first place. The potato battery is a classic symbol of electricity and science as well as being nostalgic and easily understandable.

Photo from Ontario Government Facebook page

The iconic symbol of science and electricity is effectively equated to Ontario’s electric future and helps in making this future appear recognizable and ‘comfortably’ scientific.

Framing the economic initiative with nostalgia in the media is a way in which the government can influence the narrative surrounding itself. Ontarians are likely to feel less resistant to the changing state of Ontario’s automotive industry if the information is being delivered to them through comfortable and familiar ‘packaging.’

It makes sense that the government would be interested in carefully managing communication and reception to this shift in economic policy given Ontario’s recent history of controversies in the energy sector.

Ontario’s previous Liberal government led by Kathleen Wynne was assailed with near-constant controversies surrounding energy topics. Wynne’s decision to privatize the electrical distribution company Hydro One was widely contested and caused approval ratings to drop dramatically.

Naturally, incumbent Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario PC Party are being careful to avoid provoking the ire of Ontarians from their energy-related policies.

This is not the first time that the Ontario government has been strategic and guiding the narrative and frames surrounding energy-related policy.

The Ontario government’s successful coal phase-out beginning in the early 2000s also required careful management of narratives and discourse. The government leveraged scientific evidence of coal’s health hazards — primarily from the smog that burning coal creates — to effectively stream energy policy in their desired direction.

Framing the coal phase-out as a provincial health issue swung public opinion in the government’s favour, allowing them to proceed with their policy agenda.

Other negatives of coal power were less central to the discourse surrounding phase-out, notably its effect on climate change. To the average Ontario resident, the consequences of global climate change may have sounded less dire than the immediate and localized health hazards of air pollution coming from coal power plants.

In today’s day and age, politics and discourse often intersect in virtual spaces, and it is these places where governments should be focusing the attention of their promotions.

X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube are all seeing conversations surrounding Ontario’s current electric plan and responses to the commercial advertisements. News media websites have also been noticing the unique commercials.

News outlets are taking interest in the commercial’s unique visuals, but reactions by the public in comment sections and social media are noticeably negative.

The Ontario government’s official social media accounts are actively participating in online discussions of the commercials.

The future of the electric strategy plan remains to be seen as the targeted outcomes are estimated to be reached by 2030. Right now, online opinion is polarized around what the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries would entail for Ontario.

One commenter on LinkedIn said “25k for a battery not to mention how much damage these batteries will do once on fire and when they are discarded.”

Another commenter questioned whether Ontario has the electrical infrastructure to support an increase in the number of electric vehicles on the road, and Ontario’s official LinkedIn account responded with links to IESO’s forecast of future energy needs.

To accommodate for the planned increase in electric vehicles, the provincial government has also laid out plans to expand electrical infrastructure. The IESO has been prompted to expand electricity generation and storage by 4000 MW.

In the long term, the hope is that producing electric vehicles and automotive parts province will encourage Ontarians to switch from traditional gas-fueled cars to electric ones.

According to the strategy plan, Canada is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has the natural resources required for the construction of lithium-ion batteries needed for storing the energy used to power electric vehicles. Apart from automotive assembly, manufacturing these electric vehicle batteries is the main focus of the future envisioned by the governing Ontario PC Party.

So far, the initiative to transform Ontario into a hub for electrical vehicle and EV battery manufacturing has seen a staggering $25B in investments.

Driving electric battery cars can reduce individual greenhouse gas emissions from 60–90%, while hybrid electric vehicles also produce significantly less emissions.

The initiative aims to reinvigorate Ontario’s auto industry as well as produce upwards of 17,000 jobs.

While many viewers find the commercials to be amusing, some Ontario residents, particularly those keeping up with provincial economic trends and policy agendas, are not being fooled by the spectacle of vintage atmospheres and electrified Ontarians.

Either way, the commercials are an interesting case study of framing in action, and how politics and discourse are intersecting in the wider media in the current digital age.

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