Let’s talk about Bell's corporate advocacy

Looking behind the veil of the telecom giant’s multi-million dollar campaign 

Prousky urges students to think critically about corporate advocacy.
Prousky urges students to think critically about corporate advocacy.
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Bell Canada recently raised over $7 million for domestic mental health initiatives through its “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign. Almost every person I follow on social media—from friends at Queen’s to Ellen DeGeneres—commended the telecommunication giant for its remarkable act of giving. 

But perhaps we ought to look more critically at the people signing that $7 million cheque before we attach ourselves to it on social media.

When we engage with campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk, we are condoning—or at the very least ignoring—the effects corporatization has on social issues.

These forces aren’t necessarily positive or negative, but they must be acknowledged as part of the motivation spurring the Let’s Talk campaign.  Bell covers the cost of their mental health campaign because of the marketing value it generates.

There’s an argument to be made the social benefit of a corporate mental health campaign should be compensated. But the legal makeup of corporations like Bell means they can't act selflessly.  

Bell’s Board of Directors is under fiduciary responsibility to the firm’s shareholders to maximize profits. Regardless of how empathetic Bell’s managing team is toward mental health, the value their campaign yields obliges them to run it each year. Should the campaign grow less profitable, it’d eventually become obsolete.  

When weighing the brand value of this campaign against other, high-profile marketing stunts, Bell appears much less altruistic.

Compared to a Super Bowl commercial, for instance, Bell Let’s Talk is a bargain.

According to CNBC, the cost to run a 30 second Super Bowl ad this year was $5.25 million, with an estimated viewership of around 100 million. At $7.2 million CAD ($5,550,202 U.S.) for 145 million views, Let’s Talk generates far more exposure relative to its cost.

Assuming Super Bowl ad time is comparable, each person who engaged with the Let’s Talk campaign gave Bell attention and value.

That said, I’m not convinced a single judgement can be made on the ethics of all corporate advocacy. But our collective willingness to take part in this campaign without first vetting it through analysis or public discourse is concerning.

We’ve condoned the use of corporate advocacy in the past and the results were problematic. 

One particularly contentious example of branded advocacy came from a partnership between KFC and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. By selling pink buckets of fried chicken and donating a small portion of its sales, KFC was able to donate $8.5 million to fight breast cancer in 2010.

Critics were quick to point out that obesity, which to a large extent is fueled by the rise of fast food, can increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

At worst, this campaign is a totally insincere marketing scheme. At best, it’s connected KFC to a slew of benevolent brand connotations that are uncharacteristic of the company’s core business values.

Bell might be similarly undeserving of the reputation created by its corporate advocacy. Some argue that increased screen time, which is precisely the behaviour Bell’s business thrives on, leads to poorer mental health.

Corporate influences affect the cognition and behavior of consumers, and it could muddle public discourse and decision-making on social issues.   

Consider, for example, how corporate influences have affected environmental advocacy.  

It’s not unusual for some environmental groups to take millions of dollars in funding from oil and gas firms, which creates an unfortunate link between the viability of Big Green and the success of Big Oil. This connection invariably finds its place in the marketing strategies of Canada’s largest energy corporations.

The result of this phenomenon is a less informed public. Dosed with thousands of skewed advertisements, we often disassociate energy firms—or exonerate them completely—from the climate crisis.

While I don’t believe Bell’s business is situated in the same ethical realm as fast food or crude oil, public relation campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk can mislead the public and prevent or soften public regulation of parent companies.

This is especially important since the campaign has garnered criticism from some Bell employees, who feel the company’s culture is hardly conducive to mental wellness for employees and consumers alike.  

“It seems Bell needs all the help it can get in burnishing its sorry reputation for customer service,” Jamie Swift, Canadian journalist and adjunct lecturer at the Smith School of Business, told The Journal via email. “According to the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services, Bell leads all its competitors in the angry-customer department—33 per cent of all the complaints the Commission receives concern Bell.”

Bell is as apathetic toward mental health as many of its campaign’s followers. When we fail to vet corporations for their exploitative behavior, the consequences can be grave.  

Despite the corporate factors at play, I still think the state of mental health in Canada is better off with an additional $7 million in funding. But we must remember that corporations like Bell aren’t our friends—they’re legal entities with corporate mandates that prioritize profits. 

When we forget this for a day, even subconsciously, the social causes we care most about become more vulnerable.

Jonah Prousky is a fourth year Commerce student. 

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