SNP ministers have been criticised for spending more than £600,000 on a “propaganda” campaign which experts said was designed to fuel their push for independence rather than help vulnerable Scots.
Nicola Sturgeon’s Government used taxpayers’ money to launch a major nationwide advertising blitz on TV, radio, print and social media to promote a website they claimed would offer “lifeline” support to those struggling with the cost of living crisis.
However, critics denounced the online resource, which only directs users to other websites including several run by the UK Government, as “threadbare”.
Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at the University of Leicester, said he believed the campaign had instead been devised to plant a political message.
The adverts present the SNP Government as caring and offering help in areas that are actually the responsibility of UK ministers.
Overall, the Scottish Government spent £636,321 promoting its website between Sept 28 and Nov 22. It received only 323,359 unique visits in the period, meaning almost £2 in taxpayers’ cash was spent for every click.
On average, visitors spent less than a minute on the website before leaving, internal figures, released following a Freedom of Information request, show.
“If you look at the website they’re promoting, it’s pretty diabolical,” Prof Baines, also a Conservative councillor in Leicestershire, said.
“But they are a campaigning government whose whole ethos is to make Westminster, and the Tories in particular, seem out of touch.
“Signposting people to services might be legitimate but should they have spent £630,000 promoting a website when they could have spent it on the homeless?
“It’s a form of propaganda and governments are always tempted to do this before elections.
“It’s a way of them saying ‘this cost of living crisis is nothing to do with us,’ and ‘look at what we were trying to do to help’.”
The Scottish Government has repeatedly claimed it has provided £3 billion to help families with the cost of living.
However, independent Holyrood researchers found policies announced since the onset of the current crisis amounted to less than a sixth of the claimed spend.
Several nationalist politicians used the creation of the website to refute claims SNP ministers were not doing enough and to launch political attacks.
Rona Mackay, an SNP MP, claimed it showed how the Scottish Government was doing “everything within its powers to support people who are struggling during this Tory-made cost of living crisis”.
The Scottish Tories said the data on the advertising campaign confirmed fears that SNP ministers had been more interested in creating a high-profile advertising push to create an impression they were taking action.
“The significant money the SNP have splurged on this campaign appears to have been more about trying to garner positive headlines, rather than delivering actual support to people who need it most,” Miles Briggs, the party’s shadow social justice secretary, said.
“Given the scale of the global cost of living crisis, serious questions have to be asked as to why the SNP Government produced such a threadbare website for people to access.
“It ultimately directs people elsewhere, including to the UK Government, and due to this lack of information, users are leaving the website almost as quickly as they arrived.”
Visits to website fall
Since spending to promote the website ended in late November, the number of visitors to the website has continued to fall.
In the week to Dec 27, there were just 11,506 visitors, rising to 17,232 in the week to Jan 3. Between Sept 8 and Jan 3 there were 441,522 unique page views.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Effective communication is an essential aspect of the Scottish Government’s work and is required to increase public awareness and encourage uptake of key government policies.
“The campaign aims were to increase awareness of the help on offer and de-stigmatise the need for financial support and advice, as well as promoting key sources of information.”