Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Let's Talk about Self-Serving Abuses of Power

Here at DAMMIT JANET!, we've had occasion to blog about cause marketing before, mainly over pinkwashing and the Komen Kaper.

This kick at that can is prompted by today's Bell's Let's Talk campaign for mental health/illness awareness.

First, yes, of course it is a worthy cause. Mental health issues are stigmatized and silenced. My friend Vicky Sanderson writes movingly (but not without her trademark snark) on the toll stigmatized, silenced suffering takes on individuals, families, and communities.

Mental health care and research and outreach are all also woefully underfunded.

So, it's brilliant, yes? Huge media and telecom conglomerate puts its mouth and money where the issue is and presto! Dough and discussions.


Plus, Bell gets props for taking on a 'difficult' cause. I mean, what business would associate itself with people who talk to themselves? (Unless they're using a hands-free smart phone, of course.)

My problem is cause marketing in general and this little dealie in particular.

Cause marketing usually latches onto decades of tough slogging by dedicated volunteers and under-funded organizations and turns all that work into a fleeting, feel-good, look-at-us-being-ethical festival.

It often trivializes patients and survivors. It can, as in the case of Komen associate itself with some dodgy sponsors, fudge around with some unpleasant facts that might upset said sponsors, and play hard-ball with well-meaning plebes who undertake unsanctioned activities.

And it is sometimes highly debatable how much actual dough is forthcoming to the worthy cause.

Oh hell, watch this trailer for the NFB's Pink Ribbons. (Download the whole thing here.)

I am NOT saying that Bell is doing any of that.

(Is there any colour left for the upcoming ribbons, by the way? 'Starry Night', perhaps, from the Van Gogh Chalk Paint Collection?)

But what is Bell doing? What is it getting out of this?

A tweet from Steve Faguy alerted me to the business side, aka the Bell-Astral deal.

Scroll down to the sub-heading 'The tangible benefits package and why CBC opposes it'.
CRTC policy dictates that when broadcast assets are purchased, a percentage of that purchase price (six per cent for radio, 10 per cent for television) be added on to create a "tangible benefits" package, a plan of spending on funds or projects that benefit the broadcasting system as a whole. Much of that money would be spent on new Canadian programming, which pleases independent producers.
. . .
The plan also includes $3.5 million in spending for the Bell Let's Talk campaign for mental illness. Though no one can complain about a charity program, competitors said this was an inappropriate use of benefits funds because it's not a broadcasting venture.
In other words, it is part of an attempt to sweeten up the CRTC with a (totally irrelevant) feel-good 'benefit'.

Here is Faguy again on the effects of such a campaign on the relationship between advertising and editorial and conglomerated media itself.

Here, good journalist that he is, Faguy presents Bell's response and concludes: 'There are worse reasons to abuse one's power'.

Now here is another critic of Let's Talk. Barefoot (love the name) talks about what 'tangible benefits' Bell is getting out of it, like actual revenue from texts and long-distance calls and tons of free advertising.

He concludes with some other things I find very unsavoury.

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 neither.
So, yes, it's grand that a bunch of people are talking about mental health issues. And it's grand that a bunch of organizations across the country will get some money.

But we should not close our eyes to the fact that #BellLetsTalk is also a self-serving abuse of power by one of the least-loved corporations in Canada.

UPDATE,February 14, 2013: Bell explains.

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