This wasn’t an easy thing to write or to post. It’s been on my mind quite a bit over the last few days, and I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and coworkers about it, who all have differing (and all valid!) viewpoints. I was actually advised AGAINST making a post or writeup about it, due to the sensitivity and optics of the whole thing. But I’d be beating myself up if those were the only reasons that deterred me from joining the conversation. So against my better judgement, here goes nothing.
The BellLetsTalk campaign is an initiative to raise awareness and end stigma surrounding Canadian’s Mental Health. Largely the ad campaign (yes, it’s an ad campaign, if it was purely an outreach initiative their name wouldn’t be in the title) encourages individuals to use social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to share posts with their campaign hashtag. Since the advent of the campaign in 2010, I shared their hashtag almost every year, and even felt ‘proud’ of my contribution to a cause that I stand behind 100% - because let’s face it, stigma around mental health is inarguably damaging to our society. All this being said, the campaign is starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
Astroturfing is the process of masking the sponsor of a message to make it appear as though it is supported by or supports a grassroots movement. By this definition, is BellLetsTalk a form of astroturfing? No. However the implications are the same, the movement presents itself as being in full support of a grassroots movement, and downplays their economic/financial benefits. In short, this might be one of the most powerful (and potentially insidious) ad campaigns I’ve seen from an organization in the last few years. That’s a bold claim, let’s explore it a bit more.
Bell isn’t dumb, there is a reason that they are Canadas largest telecom. They know the importance of advertising, and one of the biggest ways of advertising now a days is through social platforms. Facebook charges $0.72 per click (CPC) for advertisers on their platform 1. This heuristic of clicks does not guarantee user engagement, and doesn’t continue the spread of the message. I’d argue that PER SHARE is far, far more valuable than per click, and Bell doesn’t even incentivize likes, just shares. On top of this, Bell gets tax breaks for their donation, meaning they likely spend even less than $0.05 per share (and we won’t even go into the fact that many people are likely using their Bell data to do so). In short, we might collectively be giving Canadas largest telecom a 93% discount on their advertising. Jason Magder of the Montreal Gazette said it quite well, “It’s one thing to give a bunch of money to help improve mental health. And it’s quite another to try to benefit from free advertising at the same time.” The obvious argument is “But hey, at least that money is going to charities!”. First off, while we know which charities that money goes to, it is not shared which departments or projects it directly supports. But, this argument is a long rabbit hole to go down - my best advice is to look up some of the negative implications of astroturfing, as they can be subtle, but over time detrimental to the cause. These next few points are really what drives this point home for me.
I don’t mind supporting businesses, particularly ones that I believe are transparent in their practices and have a net benefit on our society. So does Bell believe in their message? It might seem that way, but talk to most individuals who have worked in a Bell sales office or call centre - it’s a dog eat dog world, and support systems and considerations to mental health are lacking. When CBC launched their investigation on Bell in 2017, over 600 individuals voluntarily called-in to describe the irony of the campaign 2. As it turns out, crying before your shift, taking stress leave, and being consistently pressured by sales management seems to be a common occurrence at Bell. Maria McLean, the Grand River radio host claims that she was even fired within an hour of bringing her boss a doctors note stating she needed two weeks off work for mental health reasons 3. As a short side note - I don’t even know whether Bell is going about spreading Mental Health awareness properly. Check out the this site. Each picture they use seems to be upper-middle class, white individuals… Mental Health knows no bounds and affects us all. Last time I checked, there is a far wider demographic of Canadians than these images show. But hey, I’m sure their PR/Marketing team did their research on what increased public engagement. Bell sure talks the talk, but the jury’s still out on whether it walks the walk.
Let’s keep this section short and to the point - cause hell, I could go on forever. Bell exploits one of the worlds most underdeveloped wireless markets in the world in order to price-gouge Canadians. To put that into perspective, individuals in India pay on average 70 times less than Canadians per Mbps 4. Bell has consistently been campaigning to the Government of Canada to censor access to websites because of torrenting 5. Bell has historically been systematically deterring any competition from the country, and been protected whilst doing so 6. Bell has been campaigning to NAFTA to ban Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from Canada, because, hell, who needs privacy 7. Bell contributes to a massive Digital Divide in our nation where remote and often marginalized communities suffer from inequitable, dismally slow, unstable and expensive access to telecommunications. The CRTC announced in the last few years its plan for Broadband Internet and Telecommunications to be a fundamental human right - so why in the hell are we allowing such an oligopoly to oversee its distribution.
Bell already monopolizes internet, they don’t need to monopolize the conversation around Mental Health. Instead of sharing the hashtag and contributing $0.05 to a charity and a hell of a lot more to the advertising costs of a 9 Billion Dollar corporation. Skip the middle man - share #LetsTalk and donate to a local charity that supports Mental Health. I chose to donate $25 to the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo Wellington.
LetsTalk about building environments where individuals can safely discuss Mental Health.
LetsTalk about how having Mental Health issues does not make you ‘weak’, and end the stigmas associated with it.
LetsTalk about suicide prevention.
LetsTalk about holding businesses accountable for responsibly dealing with individuals with Mental Health issues.
LetsTalk about investing in Mental Health professionals and research initiatives.
Let’s talk about Mental Health, not about Bell
1 - https://blog.adstage.io/adstages-q3-2018-paid-media-benchmark-report?fbclid=IwAR3UctqGna4wYeYRik9V_LWFkGV4H9QgY6LA54eusyS6IaP-CdZk3cx7Osw
2 - https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/bell-employees-stressed-by-sales-targets-1.4418876?fbclid=IwAR3ZaXMDPWEb7Y3sNCdxwmY1B_DmJoWAYovQzhkiG4ug7QOm6PndoEnRFPo
3 - https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/bell-media-host-mental-health-1.3950097?fbclid=IwAR0_64ygkTdLRgqXJ3_WtvsAANZHnrqINu61SA40BGDtgYXjGmpYPO5ED50
4 - https://mobilesyrup.com/2019/01/22/canada-mobile-data-use-low-revenue-per-gigabyte-high-tefficient-report/?fbclid=IwAR3Cj1kH2aTCMNoFc6c5YG-AVZTzPCFgC8780ztZ06bJv_u1C-YCQdHk6kU
5 - https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/laura-tribe/internet-piracy-website-blocking-proposal-protest_a_23372670/?fbclid=IwAR1pF_9mwPfb6TPz98EnkBMCOflBB8Ar7wrB_pDvz3OCJCcj029uq3hjWUI
6 - https://business.financialpost.com/telecom/tight-reins-leaves-our-telecom-sector-open-to-criticism-but-sadly-not-competition?fbclid=IwAR3ksxe9_fL7DxYCwupq6KMbmDbcG4WORrCK7qENMufa1xW7PKNn_tdtQW0
7 - https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/d3mvam/canadian-telecom-giant-bell-wanted-nafta-to-ban-some-vpns?fbclid=IwAR0DGP9AWTEXR_LmgMM8Eb6Q60NoMmKAbxtIhCSdLaG7ughZe9-xXnvoo1Q
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October 26, 2018•6 min read
Reflection - Academic , Conference , Research , Travel
I’ve always had an excitable, yet tentative outlook on academic conferences. Most conferences that I’ve attended over the past year and a half of my Masters in CompSci have represented (as they should) an opportunity to think outside of the box...