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BCE CEO George Cope’s Bell unit donated 5 cents for every message mentioning the charitable effort.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A day of heavy texting, tweeting and talking raised awareness and money for Bell's "Let's Talk" campaign. But behind the institutions that receive millions in donations for front-line mental health services as a result is another beneficiary: Bell's substantial marketing machine.

The high-profile campaign, which capped off a record third year this week, resulted in $4.8-million in donations as a result of Bell's offer to donate 5 cents for every message that mentioned the program – which included the company's name.

Bell says it received more than 96 million calls, texts, Facebook shares and tweets in support of the event. Bell – whose parent company BCE Inc. is one of the country's largest companies with vast telecom and media holdings – thrust itself into conversations across the country for an entire day, all for slightly more than U.S. advertisers ponied up this year for just 30 seconds in the Super Bowl broadcast.

Add to that number the thousands more Twitter followers and Facebook friends who saw those messages (views that in advertising-buying language are known as "impressions") and it adds up to a very cost-effective marketing campaign for Bell – especially considering the goodwill attached to such a worthy cause.

"We picked a cause that builds awareness and credibility around the brand in a very authentic way," said Mary Deacon, who runs the Bell Let's Talk mental health initiative. "As somebody who has been involved in mental health for 15 years and had both brothers die by suicide, I can say this is an absolute godsend for mental health services. But it's also helped people see Bell in a different, more positive light and made them think about giving Bell a second chance."

Bell, whose parent BCE also owns a 15-per-cent stake in The Globe and Mail, also ran an extensive promotional campaign, with money spent on billboards and transit posters and television ads among others. It also required an amassed public relations effort – making it difficult to cost out the initiative specifically. But there is no question that on a cost-per-person basis, the initiative was a relatively cheap promotional opportunity for the company.

"They very much got their money's worth," said Anthony Hello, director of branded content at media buying agency MediaCom Canada.

Given that the majority of the initiative takes place online, it didn't take long Tuesday for cynics to question Bell's decision to attach its name to the campaign rather than quietly direct its money toward mental health causes around the country.

"Name a cheap ploy using social media to advertise your company & services under the guise of social responsibility # BellLetsTalk," a Twitter user, Cory Stupak, wrote.

The value of a campaign like this for a company is in the engagement involved – people do something to move the campaign forward, which is much more powerful than simply seeing a message go by.

That's a thrust of corporate social responsibility campaigns across the business landscape – but telling stories around these types of philanthropic initiatives has become even more crucial in a social media world.

"Let's be honest. Bell Let's Talk is a marketing initiative. Period. It's a very high-profile one and a very worthwhile one, but it's a marketing program and that's why they're doing it," Mr. Hello said.

And while some were skeptical, others on social media Tuesday were somewhat more measured in their criticism, writing messages acknowledging that it gave Bell publicity, but expressing satisfaction that it still meant money was donated to a good cause.

The company initially promised to inject $50-million into mental health services over five years, but because of the success of its Let's Talk initiatives, it expects it to be closer to $62-million.

Some of that money has already been disbursed – Ottawa's Royal Ottawa Hospital received $1-million for its telepsychiatry and CAMH Foundation in Toronto received $10-million – while the rest will be disbursed over the next two years.

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