Tell Bell: We're not satisfied yet

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On babble, we began discussing our many issues with Bell's flyer: the image of a woman hacked into pieces; the reinforcement that the female body is somehow offensive; and the notion that students need to be protected from sex education.

Gosh, I love the internet. Even when I'm not on the internet, I'm benefiting from it. Just this weekend I hung out with my friends who I met on the internet watching movies ordered from the internet, knitting with yarn bought on the internet, using patterns printed from the internet.

But last week the internet kicked ass in entirely even more awesome and less yarn-related way.

It began when our webmistress, Jane, started this thread in the labour and consumption forum of babble, after having received a troubling flyer from Bell Sympatico. The ad read “you'll do anything to protect your kids from inappropriate content. So will we.” It featured a drawing of a female figure from what appeared to be a children's science textbook. The breasts, vulva, ovaries and uterus appeared to have been slashed away with an Exacto blade.

Now, I spend a great deal of time horrified by the mainstream media. Actually, I think I spend all of my time horrified by the mainstream media. So sometimes it's hard to have the energy to even react. But this ad made me feel like I'd been kicked in the stomach.

The reaction from the babblers was both fast, and furious. We began discussing our many issues with the ad: the image of a woman hacked into pieces; the reinforcement that the female body is somehow offensive; and the notion that students need to be protected from sex education.

We weren't all reaction, however. Babblers aren't like that. Folks sprang into action, too, seeking out the contact information for those responsible for the ad, copying and pasting letters of protest they'd sent off to Bell, and sharing what instantly became identifiable as the form letter we were all getting back from the company. One young babbler even culture-jammed the ad, changing the copy to read “You'll do anything to uphold outdated patriarchal concepts. So will we. Women's bodies: disgusting, unnatural and inessential (except in relation to a man).”

It began to get more interesting. Several new babblers registered on the site after having found the site through a Google search for more information about the ad. Grace Macaluso, a reporter from the Windsor Star posted in the thread saying that she was working on a story about the ad and looking for people to interview. We were on fire. In addition to the babble discussion, those of us with blogs posted the ad there, too, telling our sisters to pass it on. Women-run blogs like Liz Vang, Ecstatic Spiritualism, Heart of Canada, Faithalicious and The Breast Site all initiated discussions about the ad along with pleas that their readers send complaints to Bell as well. The Toronto Women's Bookstore sent around an email to everyone in their address book. The word spread quickly.

At first, Bell didn't seem terribly concerned. Babblers and other bloggers were getting the same pat answers on the phone and over email. Bell didn't find the ad offensive; its intention was to poke fun at over protective parents, etc. etc. Their official line was, “Our advertisement was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to show the lengths some people will go to in order to protect their children from 'inappropriate' subject matter” — the implication being that textbook diagrams of the human anatomy are the furthest thing from “inappropriate.” That explanation, which was clearly in direct opposition with the ad's copy, just frustrated us more.

It wasn't just the babblers who were upset about the underlying messages of this campaign. Ontario MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti and his wife Michelle also found the ad deeply troubling, and attempted to communicate this to Bell. Like the rest of us, they spent a lot of time on hold. Like the rest of us, they knew they had to do something.

So last Wednesday, Berardinetti presented a petition against the ad in the Ontario Legislature, stating:

“We, the undersigned, petition the Legislative Assembly of Ontario to forward a copy of this advertisement to the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services and the Ministry of the Attorney General for review and possible legal action against Bell Canada Sympatico and its agents.”

Somewhere between the heavy flow of emails and petitions, Bell started to Get It. People were disgusted, and the whole thing wasn't going away. Word began to spread that Bell was going to pull the ad, and make a public apology.

The publisher of rabble.ca, Judy Rebick, was one of the people on the receiving end of that apology. Charlotte Burke, Senior Vice-President of Consumer Internet Services, called Rebick to let her know that she understood the ad had to be pulled, and that she was terribly sorry it had been printed in the first place.

“In all my years as an activist, this has never happened,” Rebick said. “The object of protest calling to apologize? This has never happened.”

All the talk of “pulling the ad” and “public apology” was dizzying, initially. Actually, it still is. It's fantastic when a bunch of people gets really ticked off about something and forces organizations or businesses to acknowledge their screw-ups. Actions as simple as writing an email or making a phone call can sometimes feel like they require more energy than they are worth.

Well, when senior VPs of huge corporations are calling us to say they are sorry, that's a pretty clear indication that if enough people do talk, they will listen.

“It just shows that collective action does have an impact,” continued Rebick, who recently published Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. “When I'm out promoting the book, the number one question I am asked is 'Why aren't young women calling themselves feminists?' Well here is an example of young women organizing, and having an immediate impact.”

After speaking to Bell, however, it's clear that the impact could be greater. When pressed for details about both the pulling of the ad, and the public apology, Bell spokesperson Mohammad Nakhooda admitted that the campaign was actually scheduled to end “around the same time” as they decided to pull it. When asked what form the public apology was going to take, Nakhooda seemed confused and referred to the letter that had been emailed or faxed to the people who had complained. He said that aside from notes sent to people who had complained, the company would not be releasing any public statement in regards to the ad.

I think they need to do more. If Bell really are concerned with the portrayal of women in the media, then I'd like to see them make a sizeable donation to MediaWatch. I think it's fine that they admit their mistake; now I'd like to see them fix it.

Michelle Berardinetti agrees.

“I'm happy the ad was pulled”, she says. “But now I'd like to see them do a gender positive ad, and revise their advertising policy. They need to promise that this sort of thing doesn't happen again.”

Maybe we can help make sure that it won't. The petition drafted by Berardinetti and her husband is now in the hands of the Ministries of the Attorney Generaland of Business and Consumer Affairs, who will review the ad, and determine if any legal action needs to be taken against Bell for violating ad standards.

So now I think we need to take a bit of time to be proud of ourselves over what's happened so far. And then I think we need to take a bit more time make it clear to those offices — and to Bell itself — that we're not satisfied yet. And then we can pat ourselves on the back some more.

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