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Canadian cellphone marketing took a walk in the valley of the shadow of death on Monday morning. At an event in Toronto kicking off a competition sponsored by Wind Mobile, the company's chairman Anthony Lacavera seemed knocked briefly speechless as he listened to the mountain climber Aron Ralston explain what had led him to cut off his own right forearm to free himself from a boulder in a Utah canyon.

"I was literally in my grave," recalled Mr. Ralston, of the horrifying five days in April, 2003, that forms the subject of the current feature film 127 Hours. "I was drinking my own urine at that point: This was the real, raw edge of existence."

If you don't know what this could possibly have to do with helping consumers choose between cellphone plans, then you haven't been paying attention to the changing world of marketing.

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Companies in the business of fun and frivolous products and services have been lining up to show their serious side, from Labatt's effort in November to raise money for testicular cancer research to Virgin Mobile Canada throwing its marketing muscle behind the teenage homeless charity Raising the Roof.

Over the last two years, PepsiCo Inc. has given millions of dollars in small grants to community-based projects around North America, while Coca-Cola Co. has formed a partnership with the obesity-fighting fitness organization ParticipAction. Telus Corp. donated $200,000 to the purchase of digital mammography machines after hundreds of thousands of Facebook users responded to a call to temporarily turn their profile picture pink.

The Wind campaign will donate $100,000 to each of five charities, to be chosen by five public figures who make themselves available for a single 10-minute cellphone call with one of the contest winners, as well as another $100,000 to be split by six charities determined by online votes. (Details are available at In its public-relations materials, the company dangled the names of Justin Bieber, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama, though it has not secured the participation of any of them.

But as an upstart in an industry dominated by rich incumbents - Wind says it has "north of a quarter-million" subscribers, while the three main national carriers each has more than eight million - the company must do what it can to grab people's attention. "In today's world, advertising is not having the same impact it used to have," Mr. Lacavera explained during an interview after the event. "It is about cause marketing, it is about social innovation, and it is a lot more about PR."

"I think you're going to see more and more of this happening. The idea of trying to tell people, 'Buy my product for this price, with product guarantees' - that's no longer selling people."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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