Answering my own questions since 2001

Why today is about Bell Canada, and not mental health

Bell Lets Talk

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.

36 Responses to “Why today is about Bell Canada, and not mental health”

  1. Simon

    I totally agree with you. But it seems as though the things you thought Bell should have changed about their campaign are the only reasons they ran the campaign in the first place – to shove their brand down peoples’ throats.

    I’ve always had the unpopular opinion that ulterior motives ruin most charitable campaigns run by businesses. It’s painfully obvious, in this case and most others, that the company only has their best interests in mind and they could care less about people mental health.

    Good read!

  2. Oz

    Feh. So the company gets something back for raising $50m for mental health. Are we really that outraged by that?
    The fact is, mental health issues have $50m more attached to them now than they did before Bell came along. If Bell has figured a way to make another $50m on the back end of that, good for them. No company makes a donation to a non-profit without a tax break coming back to them – this deal is just the same, only bigger.
    And if they do well out of it, shouldn’t we implore other companies to follow suit, rather than take a dump on them for getting something back for their efforts.

  3. fern hill

    It’s even worse than that. The campaign was promised to the CRTC as ‘tangible benefit’ in Bell-Astral deal.

    http://j-source.ca/article/proposed-bell-astral-deal-its-opposition-and-what-it-means-media-concentration

    Laine Reply:

    Sorry but you are totally wrong: Bell announced that they would give money to Mental health in 2010 and put a bid on Astral in 2012…how can they be connected? they raised a few millions already even before their Astral bid. Get your facts straight.

  4. Alex

    I am personally going through a huge journey in the avenue of mental health and communication. The influx of dollars towards mental health is huge (I have been crying out for help in this avenue but have yet to receive much help – and I am learning that my delivery is poor when asking for help – yes I can laugh about it now) but cellphones are toxic to human interaction. Especially when used as a brisk communication tool.
    It (the use of text and cellphones) precipitates many of the actual causes of weakened mental health. (my experiece is with depression and anxiety) Facebook as well. Great topic and I will revisit the responses and articles again when I am not distracting myself from my work!
    cheers
    Keep talking to people!
    Alex

  5. Mark

    Correction : all funds generated through Bell Let’s Talk Day are INCREMENTAL to the $50,000,000 pledge.

  6. Harriet Fancott

    I really dislike it when major corporations hide behind “worthy causes” to promote themselves. So disingenuous. I find it odd that few people seem to see it. I like your point that if they really cared, they could use a different hashtag.

  7. Dixie

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but given the CRTC put a stop to the bell-astral merger, is it even valid to bring that up as an argument for why they’re doing this?

    You’re linking to an article written in September, and the CRTC rejected the proposal in October.

    Darren Reply:

    Ah, you’re quite right. I’ve linked to an article written today, instead, and added the word ‘proposed’ to indicate it’s in reference to the second try at the merger.

    Thanks for pointing this out–the telecomms business isn’t a strong point for me.

  8. chris

    At the end of the day, Bell will give several millions to a cause that need money, and also need to be talked about, and you’re going to have posted an article using them in order to look smart. They help, you don’t. Hope that sometimes you’re on the giving side, not just the bashing one…

    Darren Reply:

    I wonder, are all ideas that appear well-intentioned beyond reproach?

  9. Bryan

    I think it’s needlessly cynical to criticize Bell for getting exposure out of this deal. They donate this money and happen to get good publicity and a tax write off as a result. Win win, I think.

    As for the proposal to do it on World Mental Health Day: what’s so bad about having two days dedicated to mental health? Why are they only allowed to talk about mental health one day of the year?

    On that note: who the hell heard anything about world mental health day? In my opinion, Bell’s done a better job of raising consciousness about mental health than the World Health Organization, and that’s all that really counts to me at the end of the day. It’s all about the results.

  10. Rioch

    I highly doubt the people that need this funding give a rats ass about how much advertising bell is getting out of this.

    Bell is giving a fair chunk of money to the cause that many people are grateful for. They are simply making the best of this along the way.

  11. Ritchard

    I think your article is way too cyncial. I happen to think it is a great initiative, and if Bell gets PR value out of it, good on ‘em, and welcome to it. If Monsanto sponsored “let’s talk about violence against women day”, and it got people talking about violence against women, good on Monsanto, and welcome to the PR (but they wouldn’t because they are the devil).

    Yes, it would be great if talking about mental health was a grassroots effort, like #Idlenomore, but it just isn’t. We don’t talk about it because of generations and generations of stigma. Somebody’s gotta break the ice, and this day is doing that. If it takes the great might of the Bell companies to do good, well, good is being done. Commerce is a two-way street.

  12. JE

    Bell has, indeed, managed to spread their brand all over North America this year, with their promotion of Let’s Talk Day. However, just because they associate their brand with the initiative, does it really matter?
    Bell has been partnered with Kids Help Phone and has had a representative on their board of directors for years. This initiative serves to draw attention to both the Bell brand and the charities it supports.
    Athletes that Bell sponsors, like Clara Hughes, have battled with depression and mental health. Employees of companies they own, like CTV and TSN, have spoken publicly about the dangers of not addressing mental health, and have done so completely free of Bell’s branding.
    Should we criticize the Canadian NHL teams for taking up a similar initiative in ‘Hockey Talks’, inspired by the suffering of many players from mental health issues?
    Charity is charity. Any business would be foolish not to attach their branding to it. Bell is one of the country’s top companies already, they don’t need much more help. The money still goes to those in need. I don’t see any problem with it.

  13. Scotty

    Clearly you don’t understand business? This is the way it works. The point is, they made a huge impact for the cause of Mental Health Awareness today whether or not their name was attached.

  14. Jamie

    Bell is giving money to a worthy cause and getting some exposure in the process. What an outrage!

  15. Sarah

    I agree that it *IS* all about Bell, but it seems more transparent than some issues – like the Walk to End Breast Cancer, which is really all about some event company. Of course these companies are in it for the self-promotion.

  16. Tom

    Darren, can you give an example of a similar corporation you’ve worked with whose chosen the high road you’ve outlined? Seems to me that big brands have always preferred to create branded campaigns before public interest when it comes to charitable drives. Vancouver Sun raise a reader comes to mind as well as the many corporate sponsored 10k and marathons across the country. I wish it were closer to what you describe though.

    Darren Reply:

    I always joke that the true name of the Sun’s program is “Raise Another Sun Reader”. But I digress.

    Among our clients, I think The Big Wild really under-represents its connection to MEC, and does a good job of celebrating its partner NGOs. TBW also connects to the larger environmental sphere, as when we made an infographic for World Rivers Day.

    Project Aware is a former client. They’re PADI’s conservation foundation, and PADI has quite a low level of visibility on that site.

    Both of these projects, to me, are on the humble end of the ‘optimizing CSR for business goals’ continuum. I think they could actually do a lot more to draw focus to their conservation work and could still be non-tacky.

  17. Chris

    No different than you using this article as a way to promote yourself….except you are not raising 50+Million.

    This is illness needs more attention and I don’t see anything wrong with saying as a corporation that they support it.

    No different than CIBC Run for the Cure…they are all just simply saying they support it.

    …wait maybe they should say “hey we support it, but don’t want to tell anyone we support it” because we are too embarrassed?

    Oh wait…don’t forget Bell is also paying for all those advertising/self-promotion adds on top of the money they donate (not raise).

    Come on, don’t be so cynical.

  18. Jmull

    Consider this… It a moot point that bell gets to wright off the charitable donation, because they also get to wright off advertising donations, so there’s no significant added benefit by advertising via charitable program. They can’t wright off that dollar twice.

  19. Melanie Ching

    This is a huge grey area for me:

    1. I have done contract work for PR firms and as such I know the people behind these sort of campaigns *can* be well intentioned. From the outside this campaign looks well planned and good intentioned.
    2. Of course this is a huge PR blitz for Bell. It has made me consider switching from Rogers because Rogers doesn’t seem to have a moral bone in the corporate body. That is why they are doing it, to attract people further down the funnel.
    3. Mental health is such a stigmatized issue that having a mainstream entity adopt it as a “cause” means that everyone has a chance to see that mental health issues are common and deserve air time.

  20. IamVT

    While I agree there are many ulterior motives for companies to support initiatives like this, there are still positive things that come out of it for everbody. Many Bell customers have unlimited messaging and long distance plans so they were not paying more yesterday for something they were already doing. I am not a Bell customer and was tweeting and sharing the page of Facebook and Bell didn’t get a red cent for me. Nor is it something that would make me switch to Bell!

  21. Mark

    Who cares about motive. Yesterday raised another $4.8M for mental health. With the previous Let’s Talk Days, that’s over $62M to mental health that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Good enough for me

    From Darren: Based on their IP address and email address, the above comment was written by somebody who works at Bell Canada.

  22. Tom

    And therein is the rub, Mark. If you’re from Bell, be proud of it, be transparent. Promoting Bell’s position under the guise of an independent opinion destroys all your credibility and reflects poorly on your employer. We all know why brands do charity sponsorship campaigns — a little brand building as well as some public good. Hurray. More please.

    All Darren is saying is that it’s too bad more companies don’t err on the side pushing their charity partners a little more. Why do brands have to prefix every charity drive with “their” name? Would you only give to the hospital if they name a wing after you? There are some people like that. Are you one of them? I for one appreciate the corporations and brands that consistently contribute to charities without making their brand be front and centre. Much the way small business does it. But big brands don’t like having their name diluted in a sea of “corporate sponsors.” It’s easy to understand. But it’s hard to like. Thanks Darren for having the courage to take a contrarian opinion.

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