According to Bell Canada, today is Bell Let’s Talk Day. The company launched an initiative that donates to Canadian mental health programs each time you make a long distance call or send a text (if you’re a Bell customer), and each time you tweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.
This program is part of, according to the company, an “unprecedented multi-year charitable program dedicated to the promotion and support of mental health across Canada” amounting to $50 million. It’s a worthy, topical cause. And, of course, companies aren’t obligated to engage in this kind of corporate philanthropy.*
Bell has been very successful in promoting the project. As I write this, they’ve counted about 4.5 million texts, tweets and long distance calls. Promotion is easier, of course, when you own “one of Canada’s largest privately held media companies which owns the Canadian television networks, CTV and CTV Two, along with 30 speciality television channels, Bell Media Radio which operates 35 radio stations across Canada and sympatico.ca”. In any case, if you live in Canada and consume any media today, it’s going to be hard to avoid Bell’s message.
It’s important to be a thoughtful consumer, and to consider what Bell’s motives are for the Bell Let’s Talk program. Consider the following:
- Today, Bell offers its customers extra incentives to use services like texting and long-distance calls, from which Bell generates revenue.
- Bell is paying $0.05 a tweet for brand exposure, thanks to its cynical use of the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. This amounts extraordinarily cheap advertising.
- That advertising is made cheaper by the fact that Bell can write off all of its corporate donations.
- Bell’s charity partners aren’t exactly front-and-centre on their program site. They’re buried at the bottom of a couple of pages, and haven’t been featured on the program’s Twitter account at all.
Make no mistake–Bell Let’s Talk is first about promoting Bell, and secondarily about raising money for or awareness about mental illness. If my experience with similar projects is an indicator, Bell has a fixed amount of money to give, and they’re going to donate that money whether or not they generate an adequate number of tweets, texts and calls.
I’ve worked on projects similar to this, and am familiar with the tensions between corporate interests and charitable activities. Compromises are made, and strings are attached. But, if this is the way forward for corporate philanthropy, then we must play by the rules that the corporations set.
I do wish that Bell had, at the very least, done the following:
- Instead of declaring their very own branded day, they could have run their campaign around the universally-recognized WHO’s World Mental Health Day, on October 13.
- Instead of shoehorning their brand into the hashtag, they could have then used #worldmentalhealthday, like everybody else.
- They could have chosen not to tie funding to services they want consumers to use, like texting and long distance calls.
- They could have made their partner charities the heroes of the campaign, and prominently featured them on their site.
I applaud the other donations and support from Bell for the issue of mental health. They seem worthwhile and wise. Bell Let’s Talk Day is much less so.
* UPDATE: Fern Hill in the comments and Marc on Twitter both point out that, in this interest, Bell Canada was obligated to spend money on this initiative as part of ‘tangible benefits’ clause in the proposed Bell-Astral merger.