Okay, I have some complicated and severely provisionary thoughts on capitalism, mental health, corporate “charity” (and charity in general), public healthcare, the privatization of the emotional commons, and a host of other things, and if I finish my other writing I might actually write a post on it, but for now here are two quick and dirty initial thoughts on Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign that don’t quite fit onto twitter:
1) Let’s assume that Bell choose to donate (the language of “raising” money seems to be misleading here) $3 million as a result of today’s PR campaign.
Given the advertising benefits for Bell this is a sweat deal for them on first blush given their total domination of twitter and facebook and their widespread media coverage this week, today and in the coming days, but if you look at it more closely it is an unbelievably good deal.
When you account for the the 29% reduction in taxable income (not a credit for corporate tax purposes) it actually costs them about $2 130, 000 in donations. (The math of corporate income tax is stupid complicated, so my number here are going to likely be slightly off in practice, but the point remains the same)
In addition, since Bell will get 29% back in the form of not paying taxes it means it will contribute less in taxes to the Canadian and provincial governments. Money that would have been spent on public services, including public Health Care and research. So realistically you need to deduct that 29% in reduced taxes from the amount being spent on “mental health.” So the effective fiscal contribution of Bell’s PR campaign is itself only $2,130,000 since that lost tax revenue is not recovered by the state. (i.e. taxes that Bell does not pay is money not available to be spent on social programs)
That works out to roughly 3.55 cents per tweet that they are effectively contributing.
So let’s say people take 30 seconds to write a tweet, (and think about it and let it load, etc.) that means that in an hour’s worth of tweeting Bell’s hashtag slogan people are collectively “donating” an effective amount of $4.26 per hour of labour to “mental health” as a cause. (and tweeting out your personal stories about your battles with mental illness and attaching a corporate brand name to it is inarguably affective labour in the sense that Hardy and Negri use it) That is roughly 42% of Nova Scotia’s minimum wage.
And in reality one of the things that is actually happening is that for $4.26 per hour Bell are paying you to act as a PR representative for their brand – part of that branding is the image of a “responsible corporate citizen.”
Bell could just pay the same corporate income tax in 2013 that corporations paid in 1960 (or really any point since then) and contribute vastly more to the treatment of mental health in Canada than the money they are contributing as part of a corporate PR campaign. Bell Canada’s 2011 net profits were $2,160,000,000 and its total revenue was 19,500,000,000 – so whatever they end up donating for mental health treatment/awareness could be replaced with stable, annual funding by increasing corporate income tax by less than a sliver of a fraction of a percentage point.
Keep in mind as well that in 2006 Bell Canada attempted to convert to an Income Trust, a corporate model that would have allowed it to avoid paying almost any corporate income tax at all, a move that would have cost the Canadian state about $800m per year in tax revenue. It was only prevented from doing so by a last minute legislative change by the Tories. They sure as hell didn’t care much about funding for mental health in 2006 when they tried to decimate available funding for health and social programs.
In 2007 they also eliminated health benefits for retirees in order to save money (despite net earning of $4,057,000,000 that year), For retirees this of course meant reduced access to psychologists and other professionals and reduced availability of prescription drugs.
So twitter users are effectively being paid less than half of minimum wage to work as a PR professional for a multi-billion dollar telecommunications corporation and then donating that wage to a cause that ought to be properly funded by the tax dollars that multi-billion dollar corporations have lobbied hard to avoid paying.
The hourly wage argument is of course secondary to the larger ethical problem of corporations leveraging emotional, highly personal stories using social media to promote a product in exchange for a tax deductible donation after years of lost healthcare funding due to corporate tax cuts. There’s no other way to describe it than the commodification of our experience of mental illness.
(and yes, I get that there is an “awareness” side to it as well, but that is another complicated argument. I would simply say that awareness is not enough and needs to be coupled with a well resourced, properly funded, universal public healthcare system which is provided with stable funding through a graduated income tax system and that you can tweet about mental health without attaching a corporate slogan to it)
2) I am not sure your tweet actually even “raises” 3.55 cents for mental health. Bell is contributing this money as part of its proposal to get regulatory approval from the CRTC for its proposed merger with Astral Media. In order to seek approval for the $3,380,000,000.00 a merger with Astral (a deal which competitors claims is bad for competitiveness in the telecommunications market) Bell pledged to spend $3.5m on the Let’s Talk campaign. (There’s also other money in there for other “tangible benefits” such as new infrastructure in the north and french language broadcasting)
So the question is (and it is a real question) is whether or not your tweet actually increases Bell’s total spending. If Bell has pledged to spend $3.5m (minus tax incentives) on this campaign and has budgeted for it (and assuming the Astral merger goes through) then that money will be spent whether you tweet or not. I am not really convinced that the total sum Bell will spend out of a budget that no doubt was set months ago will actually increase regardless of how many tweets well meaning internet users make with a specific hashtag. (Though the exact allocation of that money is likely flexible. Further, one has to ask what it would say about a company if they have an amount budgeted to donate to mental health but chose not to donate the full amount if people didn’t tweet their slogan often enough)
In addition, the $3.5m on the campaign is not just being spent on mental health “awareness” but also on PR and on the cost of the acquisition of new corporate assets (i.e. Astral Media).
All of this is not to say you shouldn’t bother tweeting their slogan, but I think its worth trying to understand exactly what the impact of your tweet actually is.
p.s. hello to the PR interns who are currently reading this post and trying to brainstorm how to respond. I am sure many of you would love to be paid $4.26 an hour rather than working on an unpaid internship.
Accounts of the exact number of tweets and texts vary, but estimates for the end of day total seem to be clustering around $4 million-ish. Assuming that is the correct number Bell would donate about $2.8m in total funding to mental health tratment after you deduct the lost tax revenue. (note that earlier in the day I also ditched a re-posted tweet from someone else when I realized that the estimate was waaaaaaaaay off after looking at previous years)
Edit 2: ooooooooooofffffffff I made some errors there with the corporate tax code. Significant numerical adjustments that maintain the spirit of my argument but make it slightly less extreme. I also added some stuff about Bell’s attempt to convert to an income trust. Carry on.
Edit 3: (the final edit) Also keep in mind that in the case of phone calls and texts that came from Bell accounts and which counted for the campaign the customer was actually paying Bell to place that call and send that text (as well as costs of data and broadband internet from Bell internet and smartphone users). Calculating the boost in income from the increased service usage is well outside my limited mathematical talents. It’s also worth noting the awkward ethical position of news reporters from various BCE companies are put in as they plan to gush over this campaign in the coming weeks.