Bell Canada's corporate compassion rings hollow
(February 19, 2018)

Every year since 2011, the telecom giant Bell Canada has sponsored a mental illness awareness campaign called “Let’s Talk,” culminating at or near the end of a designated month in “Bell Let’s Talk Day.” Bell President and CEO George Cope said the motive for the campaign came out of a desire to reduce the fear and stigma surrounding mental illness, which keeps two out of every three sufferers from seeking help. To date, the campaign has raised more than $86 million and donated funds to more than 400 organizations, among which are the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Calgary Counselling Centre, Atlantic Wellness Community Centre, Inc.  and the Greater Victoria Citizens’ Counselling Centre.

However, it is an axiom of economics that altruism is contrary to the nature of a corporation, a rapacious artificial entity that exists only to maximize profit and shareholder equity, regardless of the effect on workers or the environment. The concept of moral obligation to people or society does not compute, and anyone who wants to see concrete proof of this should watch the sobering Canadian documentary The Corporation. So, when a corporation like Bell champions a cause like mental health, its profession of concern must not be taken at face value.

Financial Con Job

According to Ken Wong, a marketing professor at the Queen’s School of Business in Kingston:

If you mention mental health issues for the average Canadian, Bell would come to their mind sooner if not later. Because they [Bell] had the wisdom to go big, they’re all over this. It would be very hard for someone else to stake a claim on mental health.

It is one thing for a corporation to derive good will from its sponsorship of a cause, be it medical, environmental, educational or something else. It is quite another for that corporation to exploit a cause for financial gain. Despite Bell’s profession of concern for those with mental illness, “Let’s Talk” is a cynical piece of cause marketing. By promising to support a serious health problem, Bell inveigles the public into portraying it as an ethical, caring, generous corporation, oxymoron notwithstanding. On the big day that concludes the campaign, Bell chips in a nickel­­––a whole nickel––every time somebody “interacts” with “Let’s Talk” by using a Bell communication medium:

  • Text and talk: Every text message, mobile and long-distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS
  • Twitter: Every tweet using #BellLetsTalk and Bell Let’s Talk Day video view
  • Facebook: Every view of the Bell Let's Talk Day video at and use of the Bell Let’s Talk frame
  • Instagram: Every Bell Let’s Talk Day video view
  • Snapchat: Every use of the Bell Let’s Talk filter and video view

In these five points, “Bell” in some form gets mentioned 10 times; mental health, not once.

This year, Bell’s campaign was especially successful: it recorded in excess of 138 million “interactions” on smartphones and social media, which meant that a lot more people got to share their stories, thereby raising a record $6.9 million for mental health services. That this result is hailed as a great success proves that marketing kills brain cells.

In 2016, Bell Canada Enterprises registered a net profit of $3.087 billion. The $6.9 million raised this year by “Let’s Talk” represents a mere 0.22% of that amount. That’s cheap advertising! If Bell really gave a damn about mental health it would pry open its bulging corporate wallet to part with, say, a measly 1% of net profit ($30.87 million) to fund deserving programs and organizations, with suitable donor acknowledgement, of course. The mental health community would benefit, and Canadians would be spared the annual aural and visual pollution of Bell’s blanket propaganda, but that would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?

Words that mean nothing

The language in Bell’s campaign also demonstrates the less-than-honest nature of “Let’s Talk.” Consider the following dissection of a typical ad.

Cloying Generality

“Mental health affects us all” is an empty statement because “affects us all” adds nothing to the subject of mental health. It includes good health as well as poor heath and is no less inane than saying “physical health affects us all.” However, Bell is not worried about semantics because dross like this is not language in any honest sense of the word. It does not convey information; it subverts rational thought. By means of a common marketing subterfuge that I call “presumptuous inclusion,” the Bell marketer “steals” the public’s endorsement of the ad campaign by presuming to speak for it. The equally banal but more honest “Everyone is affected by mental health” doesn’t achieve the same manipulative end. By co-opting the audience’s sense of pathos, the slogan allows Bell to affect an undeserved air of concern and sincerity.

Marketing command

“Join the conversation” is also empty and non-rational. First, the use of “conversation” disingenuously implies Bell is engaging in a rational, possibly intimate, discussion in which each person participates. By Bell’s own admission, this “conversation” consisted of millions upon millions of social-media “interactions.” There is no “conversation.” Second, this slogan had been used by the Globe and Mail newspaper to similar cloying effect since at least 2006, at which time it was owned in part by Bell Canada Enterprises. Therefore, “join the conversation” not only misrepresents the essence of “Let’s Talk” but has no specific connection to mental health.

Logo, slogan and picture

The “Bell Let’s Talk” logo in the lower left seems unobtrusive, but it’s the real focus. We know this because it is also used in stand-alone ads. The picture of the smiling woman on the right serves to humanize this cause marketing. She gives a faux concreteness to an otherwise vapid abstraction, and her large, empty, blue “join the conversation” bubble ties in with the logo's smaller version. Like the other features of the ad, she has no purpose other than to trigger an emotional response in the audience: “Here’s a person who is now mentally healthy because of Bell’s campaign. I’m going to participate!” or “She’s a mentally healthy person just like me: I’m going to do my part for the less fortunate.” The ad worked because all the disparate clichés coalesced to form a moral imperative in the audience’s mind even though cajoling people into “interacting” does not add up to legitimate therapy or guarantee that those who really need mental help take part. Here’s that ad again with the propaganda explained:

Weapon of Moral Distraction

A propaganda campaign succeeds if the target audience uncritically accepts a contrived narrative as being real and operates according to its message. This holds true both for political propaganda like false flag attacks and corporate propaganda like “Bell Let’s Talk.” In the latter case, the sustained propaganda barrage and the nickel bribe not only successfully conditioned millions of Canadians to chime in but also inhibited examination of Bell’s professed moral mission. On the surface, reducing fear and stigma is the sort of noble-sounding, throw-away claim that can’t be disproven, but more importantly it provides rhetorical cover for a public-relations disaster: Bell’s hard-sell tactics that cause mental illness among its employees. What better way to cover this up than by manufacturing a cause-marketing campaign to portray Bell as a champion of mental health!

Last November, CBC Television ran three stories that chronicled just how cruelly Bell treats its call-centre staff and how unethically the company pushes its services on customers. In the second story, past and present employees told CBC of having their jobs threatened if they didn’t meet sales quotas, and as a result of constant worrying about their financial security developed chronic mental stress. In some cases, this stress led to severe weight loss, ulcers, bloody vomit, panic attacks, depression, and uncontrolled crying. One employee told of emails and phone calls from a manager in the early hours of the morning regarding her sales figures. Another employee told the CBC that Bell’s toxic work environment is so infamous that doctors unhesitatingly prescribe leave for what she has termed “The Bell Effect.”

In still another case, Andrea Rizzo, a 20-year Bell employee, developed carpal tunnel syndrome but Bell would not reduce her sales quota to account for her injury. Last November, after several years of pain, she filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission claiming discrimination based on her disability.

Employees also suffer mental anxiety, Rizzo said, because of Bell’s coercive and deceptive selling tactics. To meet a sales quota, employees sell something on every call and so feel forced to sell services that a customer may not want or be able to afford: “[If I’m not closing a sale, a coach will] sit next to [me] and say, ‘Don’t tell them that. No, put the call on hold,’ or ‘No, tell them you have no other options; this is the best choice they’re making.’ Some of them will take over the call and actually talk for us.”

To these and other specific charges of ethical and professional misconduct, Bell gave CBC no specific response; instead, it offered up blanket denials and generic, non-responsive, promotional boilerplate that could have been written by a marketing hack.

“Let’s Talk” is such a perverse hypocrisy that it qualifies as false advertising and should be forcibly ended. One can understand how people would want to participate in it, but I wonder how many would be so eager to “interact” with Bell if they knew that their efforts helped a sociopathic corporation hide its abuses. Next January, when the Bell propaganda snowstorm blankets the country, Canadians who have a conscience should ignore it. Instead of allowing themselves to be used in a cynical, marketing ploy, they should boycott “Let’s Talk” to give $5 or $10 directly to a mental health agency. The mental health they help will also be their own.