Is selling out okay for a good cause?

Clara Hughes is the spokesperson for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to raise awareness about mental illness

Let’s talk.

The phrase, and the face of Canadian Olympic star Clara Hughes, are all over the media today in a campaign organized by Bell Canada. It’s planning to spend $50 million over five years on this program, and today it’s giving five cents for every text message and long-distance call by a Bell customer to mental health initiatives.

To promote this, the campaign has pulled out all the stops, and has … partnered … with news organizations to spread the word. CTV, which Bell is in the process of purchasing, has devoted just about everything it can – including TSN and MuchMusic – to the campaign, forcing each one to mention it somehow. Hughes has been doing non-stop interviews today. She was on Canada AM. She was on CP24’s breakfast show. She was on the Marilyn Denis showShe was interviewed on CFCF. And that’s just daytime. There’s an entire channel online devoted to this stuff.

And, of course, during the actual commercials, Hughes appears again – over and over – in ads paid for by Bell talking about the campaign.

It doesn’t stop with CTV, though. My own newspaper The Gazette has two pages devoted to this subject today, one of which has a giant ad featuring Hughes and the Bell logo. I’m sure it won’t be hard to find other examples in other media.

Fighting mental illness is a laudable goal. No one with even a trace of a soul can stand up and say they oppose this campaign. I salute Hughes and Bell for their efforts, and wish the campaign success (though I’m not quite sure what that would mean – they’ve already said they’re spending $50 million over five years, so are the donations in excess of that, or did they just estimate how much it’ll cost them? UPDATE: The money from this event – more than $3 million – was in fact in addition to the $50 million they’d already pledged)

This also isn’t the first time that a big, rich company has bought news for a good cause. Newspapers often have pages devoted to issues chosen by advertisers. They have various names for this, referring to them as “partnerships” or “joint ventures”. “Directed content” is my favourite term. A step beyond the advertorial, the content is presented as news, it doesn’t talk about the advertiser directly, and the advertiser has no say in the content of the news pieces themselves, other than their subject.

Oral B and Listerine sponsor coverage of oral care. Big oil companies sponsor articles about the environment to greenwash their image. Banks and other financial institutions sponsor entire sections on the importance of RRSPs. It is, in the eyes of the publishers and advertisers, a win-win: the news outlet gets much-needed advertising money, the advertiser gets to see its logo all over the place, and the issue gets public exposure.

The only drawback is the crumbling wall between editorial and advertising. The precedent is established that an advertiser can get all sorts of journalistic outlets to contribute to its campaign, provided it’s for a good cause (or something that can be interpreted as a good cause), and that big media companies will use the power of convergence to please those advertisers, if given enough money.

Most importantly, it means that issues advertisers want to bring up – whether because they want to appear charitable or because it is in line with their business interests – get more exposure than those nobody wants to spend money on. People who want their causes to get news coverage are better off pleading to large corporations’ marketing departments than to journalists. And good luck getting anyone to pay attention to a cause that puts one of those big corporations in a bad light.

To be clear, I have nothing against this cause. Bell is spending a lot of money it could have just as easily given to its shareholders or spent on ads lauding its services. I don’t think the good PR that will come from this will bring in more than $50 million in new subscribers. And I hope the campaign is very successful and helps a lot of people.

But I think it sets a bad precedent when a company like Bell can simply dictate to all its divisions, including news, that a certain topic is covered on a certain day. It’s hard not to think of that as a slippery slope.

UPDATE: A response from Bell worth reading. And another blog post that goes a bit farther than mine, suggesting this is more of an advertisement for Bell than a campaign for mental health.

14 thoughts on “Is selling out okay for a good cause?

  1. Fassero

    Bell’s probably doing this out of a guilt complex. Bell customers probably wonder how many of them have been driven to mental illness from dealing with anything Bell remotely calls “customer service.” Anyway, nice cause I suppose. The publicity is ess nauseating than CTV’s chronic advertising for the 1st anniversary of the Vancouver Olympics at least.

  2. Tim

    I hear you. And I agree with you. But your closing statement (even if it is plain-faced sarcasm) is just a bit much for me.

  3. W G, Gatineau

    If you are going to put your face up on top of the name of one of the least-liked companies in Canada, the money had better be really good.

  4. Jean Naimard

    Croporate “charity” is just window-dressing designed to distract the gullible public from the worst deeds companies are doing.

  5. Alex H

    All you are seeing is the end result of media concentration. Bell owns the stations, they own the infrastructure, and they own the distribution. Spending 50 million to promote mental health is nice, but if you are only spending it with your own affiliated companies, are you really spending anything at all?

    If Mikey I and the Liberal Party of Canada want some platform planks that can make them popular, they need to be against this sort of media gloms. They got it right on the Internet issue this last week, and they should be off and running and taking it to a whole new level. Work to force seperation between the media creators, the media broadcasters, and the media distributors. Put it out there: Bell needs to either be the company that delivers the programing (belltv) or the largest network (CTV) or a local station owner (CFCF, example). They should not be allowed to be all three. The same should apply for Shaw, for Videotron, for Cogeco, and all the other “Playahs” in the Canadian media world who between a very small group of companies own everything and pull every string.

    This example is 50 million reasons why there is a need for action.

  6. Marc

    While I don’t want to take away from her big successes and the troubles she went through; she, and no shortage of other olympians also shill for quackery like Cold-FX. It’s amazing what having a truckload full of money driven up to your doorstep will do.

  7. Fred BelAir

    These olympique athletes will do ANYTHING to avoid getting a real job.

    Oh, I forgot, they are special. It’s all about them and how good they are and that they are the best and how we boring normals aren’t like them so we should buy what ever crap the corporations pay them to sell.

    A sales representative with less credibility than an athlete would be hard to find.

    Hey athletes, it’s time to get a day job. Oh, did you miss university because you were busy “training?” Now that was a bad career move, dearies.

    Whoring for evil Bell is the best you can do? Good luck with that. We used to respect you, but that didn’t last long.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      These olympique athletes will do ANYTHING to avoid getting a real job.

      I can’t think of an Olympic athlete who seriously does this kind of training because they want to avoid working. Most amateur athletes get little if any financial support.

      And all of them know they’re eventually going to have to do something else to make a living when their bodies are no longer in top shape.

  8. Heather H

    Isn’t this what Olympians do? They win glory and medals, after a life-time of gruelling work to become the best of the best. And the reward comes in the form of corporate endorsments and lecture circuit.

    I can’t blame Clara Hugues or anybody else for that. I find it quite courageous on the part of Ms Hugues to allow her name to be used in conjoncture with mental illness, as opposed to a brand of running shoes.

    Using your argument, one would think The Gazette does the same thing when it runs sob stories about people in needs every winter, for its Christmas fund.

    1. TK

      Agreed. If she’d become the face of Cover Girl Canada there wouldn’t be a story here. Yeah, she’s shilling, but she’s got major guts.

  9. Pingback: Bell Let’s Talk Day: “This is why we do it” – Fagstein

  10. CF

    So all this money is donated to just talk about mental illness because then it’s a farce and there is no reason for anyone to donate. Maybe if they set up a foundation where mentally ill people could apply to get money to help them live then we’d have something to talk about. I have CPD and a private disability plan from my employer from premiums that I payed into for insurance. I worked for 24 yrs and now just keeping the wolf from the door. I would say in the next couple of years he will get in. Do we think the government will donate anymore money to us when their trying to take it away from the retired. I often wonder, where does all this money that is collected go because we don’t see it. We have no patient services here or enough Drs. There are no places for the mentally ill on the streets to live and they are probably too sick to know to apply for anything, not that it would be enough to support them. Just throw them on the street. Others can’t afford the drugs they need. Set up a place where people could get medications free of charge. This would be a help for anyone. Are you doing research with the money? You have enough to try to get people back on their feet at this point I would say. Stop making yourselves look like angles doing all these wonderful things to make it sound like it will help. People are just curious to see which stars have what.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      So all this money is donated to just talk about mental illness because then it’s a farce and there is no reason for anyone to donate.

      The money donated goes to various organizations that work to combat mental illness.


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