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Thousands of academics gathered in Vancouver for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in June. They presented papers on everything from child marriage in Canada to why dodgeball is problematic. In its Oh, The Humanities! series, the National Post showcases some of the most compelling research.
Bell Let’s Talk has become a portal for the global discussion about mental illness, but one Canadian researcher says people’s heartfelt social media posts may make them targets for advertisers.
In her literature review , Jasmine Vido argues the campaign is more about Bell building its brand than trying to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“Bell is a service provider receiving a financial award in exchange for the publicity of the campaign,” the University of Windsor master’s student writes in her major research paper.
“There is a common paradox associated with corporate activism, which involves simultaneously spreading awareness for an issue while promoting a positive corporate message.”
Bell Let’s Talk Day is a campaign that began in 2010, in which the telecommunications giant donates five cents for every text, wireless and long distance call by customers and any social media post that includes #BellLetsTalk .
In a written statement to the National Post, Bell emphasizes it does not raise funds from customers.
“That’s a key point about the initiative that departs from the usual charitable approach,” wrote Jacqueline Michelis, a media relations spokesperson at Bell Canada. “We don’t ‘raise funds’ from customers, Bell donates the funds based on message volumes that day.”
Bell says it has donated $100,695,763.75 since the campaign began and the platform it created has been a launching pad for programs such as the world’s first university-certified course for fostering mental health in the workplace.
Vido says the company surely saves money on marketing with the viral posts shared on Bell Let’s Talk Day.
“The Bell Let’s Talk campaign is a multi-platform movement that is supported by the unpaid labour/engagement of social media users,” she writes.
Bell says it encourages people to participate in order to break down the barriers around mental illness.
“We seek people’s engagement in the cause because mental health experts have consistently said the best way to reduce the stigma around mental illness is to get people talking openly and often about it,” read the statement.
Vido says the campaign went viral by tugging at people’s heartstrings through an important cause. She uses the pink breast cancer ribbon as another example.
“Breast cancer marketing has become a widespread form of promotion due to the fact that companies can show compassion for a cause while catering to the interests and desires of modern consumers,” she writes.
“Purchasing a product stamped with a pink ribbon that symbolizes breast cancer support allows people to feel as though they are fulfilling a political responsibility through accountable actions.”
And Vido says advertisers could be taking note of users who use the campaign to open up about their mental illness online.
“Individuals who post their personal stories on Bell Let’s Talk Day are targeted and exploited with advertisements for products that can ‘assist’ with their mental health illnesses,” she writes in her paper.
“Anti-anxiety blankets, antidepressant vitamins and self-help books are just a few examples of goods that would (so-called) ‘treat’ people who admit they are struggling… ultimately, Bell Let’s Talk Day can provide companies with data on who is mentally struggling and more likely to purchase goods and services for help.”
But despite the criticisms Vido levelled at the campaign, her own analysis of social media comments on Bell Let’s Talk posts “surprised” her — 64 per cent of the comments were positive and praised Bell for its efforts.
Although Vido acknowledges her critical stance and approach in the research she also says the campaign helped her.
“As a person who struggles with anxiety, I was always pro-Bell Let’s Talk Day…. I think that Bell has used its brand to take a part in this revolution, ” she wrote in an email to the National Post.
“I was silent about my struggles with anxiety and OCD for so long. A few years ago, I shared my story online and felt very inspired to help others. It took a lot of bravery because I put on a ‘perfect’ facade for so long. Now I am a lot more open about my experience with the illnesses and I feel a lot more comfortable to do so.”
Vido says her master’s program and her partner helped her take a critical second look at the social media movement.
“He was the one who made me question it,” she wrote.
“I was frustrated. For so long I thought that Bell was a leader in mental health awareness, but when I had the epiphany that they may be more concerned with their brand than mental health illnesses, I was upset…. There is a huge paradox that needs attention.”
Vido adds it might only get people talking for one day a year or self-diagnosing online, rather than getting help or tangibly supporting others beyond the single day.
“(My boyfriend) believes that the campaign is a slap in the face to people who struggle with mental health and the people who support them,” she said.
“There is no direct way of seeing how social media users’ posts (and essentially free advertising) are impacting mental health initiatives.”
Although she says the campaign is extremely effective at fostering collaboration between people, she wants Bell to do more.
“The purpose of sharing their experiences online is to build their self-brand by showing their followers that they are ‘kind, generous, and an advocate’ — they truly feel as though they are supporting a cause, regardless of the amount of money that is actually raised,” she argues.
“It is strictly Bell in the hashtag #BELLLetsTalk. Why not just #LetsTalk? It is the brand that comes to the forefront and is advertised, rather than the purpose of the campaign.”
Bell says it put its name on the campaign because no one else would.
“In 2010, mental illness was an issue little discussed and poorly funded,” the company said in its statement.
“In our view, it was a very strong anti-stigma message that a major Canadian corporation was finally willing to put its name fully behind the cause…. We also work with a large number of institutions and businesses, including many of our competitors, to get the mental health message out and encourage participation.”
Vido says she will continue to research the topic despite warnings from fellow researchers.
“My colleagues have warned me that this is a very challenging topic to pursue because of Bell’s size and power,” she said.
“It’s not just Bell that is infatuated with using individual responsibility to help overcome social problems — this seems to be the new wave of the future.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019