Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
February 13, 2013, by

#LetsTalk about #BellLetsTalk

by Michael Wheeler

I am writing from the privileged vantage-point of someone brought up in a home where talking about feelings and mental health was not stigmatized. (Thanks Mom and Dad.) Still, I can’t help feeling pretty uncomfortable with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag that dominated Canadian Twitter yesterday.

Bell Lets TalkWith endorsements and early tweets from celebs ranging from William Shatner to Strombo, many commentators seem unbothered by the corporate branding of a call-to-action for mental-health discussion. Although the initiative’s being hyped for the 5-cent donation made for every tweet using the hashtag, it is actually part of Bell’s greater commitment to donate $50 million to mental-health causes over the next five years. It is a campaign that lists as partners and resources many frontline mental health organizations.

This laudable charitable donation is getting a lot of leverage in social media. Using the hashtag isn’t the only way to promote the initiative (see sidebar), which is connected to a well-designed interactive campaign page that allows visitors to share compelling facts about mental illness via Facebook and Twitter. It is a high-end social media campaign that seems to be impacting public discourse and pushing mental health to the forefront. This is a good and necessary idea.

My concern stems from the specific and conscious design of this social media campaign to force participants to use the sponsor brand as a call-to-action. Tweeting to #LetsTalk is a useless gesture – you can participate only if you use #BellLetsTalk. Only by citing the name of a corporate telecom giant can you add your voice to this discussion of mental health.

By laying claim to language that is normally crowdsourced by the community and imposing their corporate brand, Bell has co-opted naming rights to an urgent discussion. This is lightning in a bottle for any company. I’m imagining it’s great for one that six days ago, was cited in a scathing report for the CRTC by the Competition Bureau on how uncompetitive practices by Canadian telecoms make the industry a global leader in giving customers a bad deal. These practices contributed to Bell generating $2.6 billion in profits in 2012.

Donations to charities are important. They should be respected, applauded and encouraged. One assumes that there will also be significant tax benefits associated with donating $10 million a year to mental-health charities. The ethical lines become blurred when this giving can then be leveraged a second time as defacto naming rights to a conversation around a cause.

Naming rights are a big deal. They are valuable and are usually negotiated vigorously. (Or not in the case of BMO Nuit Blanche.) Defining discussion around mental health through activities that force public endorsement of recent corporate donors is problematic. By creating a system that requires sharing the Bell brand on Facebook or using their branded hashtag on Twitter, the campaign crosses a line.

With #BellLetsTalk, Bell is crowdsurfing us, asking us under the patronage of their brand to share brave and vulnerable stories with our personal networks. These thousands of personally charged endorsements are the type of exposure that cannot be bought through a traditional ad buy, as thousands incorporate the Bell brand into personal, meaningful acts of sharing. Throw in the sub-phrase “Lets Talk” also relates to the services and products Bell provides at some of the most expensive rates on Earth – and we have a winner from the kids down the hall in marketing.

It’s important to resist this redefinition of language and space for conversation. Double-dipping as both charitable good work and for-profit viral marketing gives both concepts a bad name. Probably the only way to stop this kind of corporate encroachment into personal issues and public spaces is for online communities to respond. In this case, I hope #LetsTalk (sans the Bell brand) takes off as an alternative hashtag to discuss mental health issues online. The only thing enforcing the old hashtag is our own acquiescence to corporate branding of our personal stories.

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  1. Sebastian Marziali says:

    Well written as always Michael. I must admit with this particular situation I find myself at a great loss. I would like to think that as a people we shouldn’t need mass corporate incentive to finally conduct a real open and broad discussion about mental health. I would like to think that the efforts of grassroots organizations and advocaters over the years would have been enough to open peoples eyes and hearts to share their experiences and desires for more information. Despite all that I have to admit that yesterday’s event, however much linked to Bell publicity, did open up discussion both with the Bell hashtag/ customers and without . I think you’re correct in questioning whether this does cross a line or not because I do believe it’s balancing on a fishing line between real progressive effort and incredible corporate tactic. One thing I did find fascinating and frustrating yesterday were the amount of tweets and posts that plugged the hashtag #bellletstalk but then proceeded to not open any discussion. As if the mere act of hashtagging to get the donation is what mattered rather than the discussion itself. In your article here I see a tweet that has zero to do with mental illness and yet is tagged, and I feel that is where it all gets fuzzy. When there’s more lets talk than actual talk I fear the point is lost. Would a better strategy have been for Bell to make a giant donation and then try to get the converstaion rolling without money attached to each tweet? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t have made Bell as much money nor bolstered their public image quite as much. Much like celebrities I think for corporations its a matter of using their influence and reach to insight meaningful discussion and action from their users without tying it back to their product or image ( it’s rare but it can and does happen). I guess in a sense I’m haply because today there are people carrying on an important conversation in an attempt to affect real change seperate from a brand, but conflicted about a brand profiting from the opening of that conversation.

  2. Hey Sebastian,

    Thanks for this great comment. Yeah I included the Raptors tweet on purpose because it had nothing to do with mental health. It was just rain’n 3s at the ACC.

    I think you are right that tweets like these are a result of how every tweet received a 5 cent donation. Columnist/political commentators Scott Reid and Scott Feschuck actually spent the day tweeting back and forth about anything BUT mental health, but using the hashtag – I guess the idea being that it was still laudable just to peg Bell for a nickel each time, even if no one was going to open up. (I don’t judge this too harshly though, as it strikes me as exactly the sort of hair-brained scheme I would come up with.)

    What I am suggesting, is that Bell could have achieved the same results without including the brand in the design of the campaign. The website, celebrities, “promoted” hashtag, graphic design and everything else is possible without the branding.

    This begs the question: Why was it included? The answer is of course: Because it is advantageous to Bell to be a branded sponsor of every personal story about mental health we publish to our personal networks. This however puts the activity in a new realm and the ethics are dodgy.

  3. ashley says:

    Really interesting perspective Michael and while I chose to support the campaign and use the hashtag yesterday, I definitely had some of the same thoughts.

    Yesterday I saw more people engaging and talking about mental illness through social media more than I ever have before, including Mental Health awareness week/month or when the Mental Health Strategy for Canada was launched. I will agree that the hashtag was misused and thrown onto the end of tweets for the sake of donating, but there were some good things happening.

    It was also in line with the Life is Sweet series I’ve been running on my blog in conjunction with my upcoming cabaret honouring my mom, who dealt with depression and ultimately committed suicide. One of my objectives for the show was to raise awareness of mental health and get people talking. The content that people have been sharing has been brave and candid, and it has opened up a dialogue about mental health with those around me. And yesterday I added #BellLetsTalk in addition to #lifeissweet.

    Would using simply #LetsTalk be as effective? Absolutely. Do I think that Bell gained any customers or popular opinion by the campaign yesterday? I don’t think so. I love the idea of using #LetsTalk to address mental health through social media and truly hope that some action / changed perspectives happen as a result of yesterday.

  4. Hi Ashley,

    Thanks for this. It’s great to hear your experience working on twitter and through performance to raise awareness of mental health issues.

    I think it is important to recognize that yesterday was a banner day for discussion of this kind and the impulse and certain elements of the execution of the campaign should be applauded.

    I do think that moving forwards it would be really exciting if the de-branded #LetsTalk became a standard hashtag to raise awareness of mental health issues. Isn’t really up to me though. It’s better when this decision is arrived at through the regular community-based haggling and negotiation that results in a hashtag.

  5. Jess Moss says:

    I’m quite conflicted about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. I think bringing mental illness to the foreground is important. I’ve benefitted from support from CAMH, and from help that’s been financially covered for me, and I’ve struggled when I couldn’t afford the right kind of mental help. I’ve also struggled when people didn’t believe that I had a problem that couldn’t be solved by a good night’s sleep and a swift kick to the ass. I think we need to talk about how we’re feeling, particularly when we’re not feeling very well. And we need to do better with mental health in our health care system: the waits are too long to get into the right programs, if you go to emergency as a mental health risk you might wait too long, a lot of doctors are not properly educated, the pharmaceutical control (pill tie-ins) over doctors is a nightmare… having been through the system, it’s a mess.

    So: awareness, good. Donations, very good. Maybe the net benefit of this campaign outweighs the icky feeling I get of shilling for Bell. If a bit more money means that I or someone else would have waited less time for help, or been able to afford help, or gotten the right diagnosis, or not been told ‘its all in your head’, I do think it’s worth it. And yet….

    Obviously this highlights my own personal issues, but one problem for me is that I often feel that I have no value to anyone; or, people will just use me and throw me away. There was something about this campaign that cut to the core of that. I felt like a statistic and a part of Bell’s advertising. I’m a person: i’m not something you can point to or use as a horrifying example. I don’t have a trendy disease: I’m in pain, and I’ve been in pain for a while. When issues that deal with struggles of identity, self-worth, value to others are conflated with profits and brand recognition, it gets a bit confusing. There’s often an analogy used that a mental health problem (I see this used with ‘depression’ most commonly) is just like an injury or a chronic illness: you wouldn’t expect to be able to do everything everyone else can do if you had a broken arm, so you can’t if you are depressed. But there is, for me, a difference: everyone can see a broken arm. A medical diagnosis for a condition with clear symptoms and repercussions is far less nebulous than just not being able to get out of bed for a while. It’s hard to want to be a spokesperson for mental health because it’s so deeply connected to a flaw in your very being: not something you have, or you got, but something that you are. If this ‘something that I am’, is just of a financial benefit to a major company (that I don’t even really like), I feel pretty cheap. I feel like a puppet. I feel that all I’m good for is to be a mentally ill person so others can feel better about themselves.

    I also fear that there’s a generality with this that will contribute to people self-and misdiagnosing. As if, today, (or yesterday) we all acknowledge our own struggles, and we do our little bit, and that’s the end. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when people self-diagnose and then claim the illness: ‘I’m OCD’ thrown out in casual conversation, etc. I think you should listen to yourself, trust yourself if there’s a problem, and you might be right, but saying that makes it harder for people who actually are diagnosed with the problem to get the right help and be taken seriously. I was guilty of this for a long time: then I got diagnosed with a problem and my life got much harder, because once you are slapped with an official mental problem diagnosis, no one wants you. It’s not a trendy ‘gluten allergy’: it’s something that ended lots of things in my life. It doesn’t make you more interesting: it makes things a lot harder. There was a generality to the campaign that made me think it would lead to a vey shallow discussion that lasted for 24 hours, that felt geared towards acknowledgement of general problems instead of specific ones, and then stopped. That brought us all a feeling of self-satisfaction and community (which is great, but…), but wouldn’t actually be of help to a lot of people struggling with mental health. We’ll see if there are plans to move forward.

    I apologize if anyone’s offended. This is sticky territory and I’m only speaking for myself.

    I think this is a first step. It’s actually a beautiful tie in that a communications company (like Bell) would champion mental health (the evil marketing genius who wants to fill a theatre and get patrons in me can recognize this). I’d love to see them move forward with this in a less commercial way, or see it spark something that moves beyond a corporate tie-in. Things aren’t simple and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act: but I think we need to talk. Without branding. Just talk. And then….well, there’s a lot more after talking. But that’s the beginning.

  6. Hi Jess,

    What an incredible and honest comment. A lot of your experience and response illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the Bell campaign. I think we can all agree that mental health was in the news in a big way this week and this is a good thing, which is why most of talking/writing about this feel conflicted.

    It’s a great point that the design of the campaign could leave participants feeling like a statistic and part of an advertising campaign, which as a non-medical professional I am going to assume is not going to improve mental health. Hopefully as this campaign moves forward (it is a 5yr plan) it will be able to transition to something that keeps the benefits of awareness and donations, without the corporate branding of individual experience.