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Category: #LetsTalk

February 13, 2013, by

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.