The Nova Scotia government spent $250,000 last year in its campaign to send a Christmas tree to Boston, but one marketing expert says it’s hard to tell if taxpayers are getting good value for the money.

Through a freedom of information request, CBC obtained a breakdown of costs, including what was spent on transportation and sponsorship deals, and how the province paid the City of Boston for its tree-lighting ceremony.

The $250,000 bill surprises Ed McHugh, who teaches business and marketing at the Nova Scotia Community College.

“Well my first thought is that it’s a fairly big price tag. But then you’ve got to stand back and break it down,” he said.

Since 1971, the tree has been an annual gift from Nova Scotia to adorn Boston Boston Common to say thanks for the assistance after the Halifax Explosion in 1917. In the beginning, the tree for Boston was given as a pivate gift from Christmas tree growers in Nova Scotia. Over the years, the tradition has evolved into the provincially funded televised spectacle it is today, although it’s not immediately known how much has been spent.

Promoting Nova Scotia

Zach Churchill, minister for Communications Nova Scotia, said while the Tree for Boston is primarily a gift, it also comes with opportunities to promote the province in New England.

“We also need to look at the great opportunities this tradition provides us to try to make sure we get more tourists coming up to visit,” he said.

“Also to encourage Bostonians and New Englanders to buy our seafood, to buy our other food products, and look at the potential that our province has in terms of developing an energy corridor with the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.”

Deal with ABC in Boston

Communications Nova Scotia paid roughly $116,000 to the City of Boston and ABC affiliate WCVB to create a one-hour tree-lighting special that it broadcast live in early December between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time.

McHugh said given a national TV commercial can cost $300,000 to make, a $75,000 payment to ABC in Boston seems reasonable for the tree-lighting special. But he thinks the province could negotiate a better deal.

“This is a program in Boston that ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox would all probably like to have on their channel at prime time on some evening leading up to the Christmas season,” he said.

Hard to measure tourism boost

McHugh said it’s nearly impossible to tell if the Tree for Boston campaign boosts tourism to the province.

“I doubt you could ever make that linear connection that people said, ‘Oh I went to a tree lighting, and therefore I decided to spend two weeks in Nova Scotia next summer or the year after,'” he said.

Government pays CTV to participate

Communications Nova Scotia also paid CTV Atlantic $25,000.

A pitch document from the broadcaster obtained through a freedom of information request shows CTV committed to covering the tree-cutting event, emceeing the sendoff ceremony in Halifax, and doing weather items and “tree-related elements” from Boston during the 5 p.m. newscast the day of the tree lighting and the following day.

CTV Atlantic also committed to producing a 30-second commercial for Tree for Boston and airing it over a 10-day period, plus digital promotion and news promos around Tree for Boston. CTV Atlantic estimated this represented a net benefit of $30,000 to the province.

Kelly McBride, who teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training centre in St. Petersburg, Fla., said government sponsorship of broadcast content on CTV Atlantic raises ethical flags.

“It’s probably not clear to the audience in Nova Scotia that the government has paid to arrange a certain amount of coverage,” she said.

McBride said sponsorship arrangements for advertorial content are becoming more common in print and broadcast news media, but the CTV example is not “the most grievous omission possible.”

‘Public gets a little cynical’

McBride said the key is transparency.

“When the public knows that the government is paying journalists for coverage, and that journalists are making decisions even around something as silly as a gift of a Christmas tree to another city, the public gets a little cynical about whether journalists can really do their jobs,” she said.

Matthew Garrow, the director of news, local stations, sports, discovery networks and community investment for Bell Media, which owns CTV, said the $25,000 was used to purchase advertising to promote Tree for Boston. He would not give any details on how the $25,000 was spent.

“However, I can assure you that per CTV News Policy, any advertising campaigns airing on CTV in no way influence editorial decisions made by the CTV News team,” Garrow said in an email statement.