With the rise of mainstream activism, we as a society are becoming more conscious. Increased globalization has allowed for faster transmission of news across borders and social media provides new ways of sharing information, essentially redefining how we “do” activism. Recently, there has been a growing focus on how corporations can either contribute to or hinder social justice. Social media has transformed the way we hold corporations accountable, and digital activism is consistently evolving and increasing in importance.
It has now become common for companies to speak out about social issues as they may risk alienating their younger target groups. Marketing analysts say that Millennials prioritize authenticity and sustainability while GenZ has been characterized as “woke/ progressive …increasingly looking for companies where they can see their woke mentality reflected.” While the shift to conscious consumption has contributed to a degree of increased awareness, it is important to interrogate how activism is being commodified through empty promises and catchy slogans by corporations that do not practice what they preach, such as Bell Canada.
#BellLetsTalk is a campaign that was created by Bell Canada, a telecommunications company worth billions of dollars, in 2010 as an effort to raise awareness and combat the stigma surrounding mental illness. During the campaign, Bell donates 5 cents to mental health initiatives for every text, call, or post that includes the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. However, the campaign, which has been recognized as the largest corporate commitment to mental health in Canada, has not gone without controversy. Activists and people who suffer from mental illness have grown suspicious of #BellLetsTalk, questioning how watching videos of Micheal Buble vacuuming somehow benefits the 28% of Canadian youth who suffer from mental illnesses. National conversations about Bell’s treatment of their employees and their Ontario prison contracts demonstrate that their initiatives are nothing more than shallow performances. #BellLetsTalk is a prominent example of the contradictions and limitations of corporate activism in Canada.
#BellLetsTalk, But Not for Everyone
As “trailblazers” in the mental health community, one would assume that Bell would begin with ensuring the mental health of their own employees. Bell Canada “claims” that its managers undergo extensive mental health training. Yet, in 2017, roughly 600 previous and current employees contacted CBC in a “Go Public” forum describing the toll that aggressive sales targets had on their mental health. They reported regular panic attacks, crying before call-center shifts, common stress leaves, and a lack of accommodations for disabilities induced by harsh working conditions. One employee describes her experience at a doctor’s appointment saying “the second I told my doctor that I worked at Bell, she did not hesitate to prescribe a leave… Doctors call it the ‘Bell Effect.’” Bell actively excludes their employees from their mental health initiatives while reaping the benefits of their ingenious marketing campaign.
The Ontario prison population is also excluded from the “conversation.” Bell has an exclusive contract with the Ontario government that provides telephone services in jails, limiting inmates to only calling landlines and paying extremely marked up collect-call rates. A 2019 report found that one-third of all inmates had a mental illness on file, and also reported on Ontario jails’ inadequacy in providing proper mental health support. Bell profits from the mental instability they impose on inmates by creating barriers to contacting family members or arranging counselling, housing, or employment. Having basic needs met can make all the difference to a group that is already vulnerable to suffering from mental illness.
Bell’s prison contract contradicts their mental health initiatives as they dismiss the links between prison and mental illness. Further, #BellLetsTalk does not encourage critical discussion on the role of the government or systemic inequalities but instead diffuses responsibility onto individuals. Bell’s simple approach to mental illness encourages talking, watching YouTube videos, and re-posting, which ultimately sells a misleading message that individuals can help cure mental illness via social media. This deters consumers and activists from holding the state accountable for producing the conditions that are contributing to the contemporary mental health crisis, such as systemic inequality. Bell’s Ontario prison contracts reveal a shallow understanding of the factors that contribute to mental illness and a failure to see themselves as part of the problem.
You do the Talking, Bell Benefits
Attention has also been brought to the quality of the conversations #BellLetsTalk fosters. Sadie Jacobs-Peters, a woman who suffers from mental illness, claims that #BellLetsTalk waters down the realities of mental illness. She notices there is little to no conversation on the “messier” side of mental illness such as mood or personality disorders. She explains that “people will share a nicely packaged post or tweet with their experience with anxiety or depression, it gets 100 retweets and people say, ‘this is wonderful.’”
When corporations “take on” a social issue and donate to charities for tax write-offs, their attempts to make an issue digestible to the public end up de-radicalizing it. This contributes to what is called the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex”, a feedback loop that pushes grassroots movements that lack financial resources to be dependent upon corporate donors, who are usually interested in maintaining the status quo. However, the primary purpose of activism is to challenge the status quo which requires addressing the “messy” issues, looking at the bigger picture, and not taking short-cuts.
Additionally, #BellLetsTalk can be triggering for many as stories about suicide, substance abuse, and self-harm are widely shared. The pressure to “tell your story” takes after the model of corporate Diversity Day, where once a year corporations encourage their employees of colour to disclose their experiences with racism. Recently coined as “trauma porn,” this strategy refers to the “perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune” that commodifies pain in hopes to spark empathy for a social cause. Many describe this as patronizing and un-sustainable for real social change.
#BellLetsTalk about your performative activism
Lastly, #BellLetsTalk strategically uses societies’ fascination with instant gratification to its advantage. Sharing, re-tweeting, and using hashtags allow “Canadians to type a short message and call it activism for the day.” Just like the now-infamous “Black Square” on #BlackoutTuesday, it appeals to a public who prefers quick fixes and allows people to feel like they are contributing. However, activism is hard, lifelong work. Allyship is defined as an “active and consistent practice of unlearning… in which a person in a position of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” It requires action, a deep sense of responsibility, and a willingness to listen, learn and be accountable to a community.
As a corporation, it is imperative to consistently acknowledge power dynamics and understand that their relationship to capitalism will always impact the way corporations “do” activism. It requires looking inward to the very structure and management of the corporation and the individuals who make up the corporation, by asking: How willing are you to interrogate your own biases and prejudices? How willing are you to sacrifice your privilege for the common good? How committed are you to learning about ways you can do better and implementing change accordingly? For Bell, how well do you treat employees who struggle with mental illness every other day of the year?
Ultimately, it is clear that Bell does not have a genuine or altruistic motivation for engaging in the discussion about mental health. It is primarily concerned with providing the public with a sensationalized mode of talking about mental illness based on instant gratification and trauma porn as a way to line its own pockets. It donates a small amount in comparison to its annual revenue, receives thousands of social media mentions, and positive brand endorsements from politicians and celebrities. As genuine and activist-savvy as corporations may appear, it is important to remember that they will receive financial compensation in exchange for showing vague interest in a social issue.
Activism requires going deeper than simply facilitating a discussion or using old models of diversity training that teach how to not “offend” customers or employees. True activism is found in the less glamorous, day-to-day actions and decisions of individuals and corporations alike. Partaking in diversity training or giving employees paid mental health days should not make a corporation extra-ordinary, it should be the bare minimum. What good does annually facilitating discussion and donating money to mental health initiatives do, if the very structure of the corporation actively contributes to the mental health crisis? Corporate activism is performative when the concern for appearing “woke” outweighs the work being done on a day-to-day basis.