Bell Canada’s LGBT-inclusive Olympics ad aimed for social media buzz, not activism

It isn’t outrageous to see a gay couple in TV commercials. But this year’s Olympic games happened to take place in Sochi – a place with anti-gay laws.

That’s why Bell Canada’s Olympics ad was not perceived as just heartfelt and celebratory – it featured two men intimately kissing on a couch. Even though the scene was less-than-a-second long, it generated considerable buzz among media outlets, human rights groups and naturally, social media.

According to Topsy.com, the number of tweets about Bell Canada spiked during the Winter Games. Many viewers logged on Twitter to express their reactions to the kiss scene – either “pleasantly surprised” or “patriotic and proud” ones.

One Globe and Mail article stated that Bell was “putting its weight behind gay rights” and referred to it to challenge other sponsors to speak out. Huffington Post applauded Bell for joining “the ranks of companies like AT&T and Google in taking a swipe at Russia’s controversial anti-gay laws.”

But was activism what this kiss scene was really going for? Not a chance.

The company’s spokesperson Mark Langton even said so: Bell did not intend on activism. The commercial merely aimed to accurately represent Canada by “showing everyone,” he said.

But Langton’s reasoning wasn’t completely genuine, either.

Olympics commercials aren’t usually controversial or edgy. They usually tug at viewers’ heartstrings at most (e.g.: Proctor and Gamble’s “Thank you mom.”) These kinds of feel-good ads never get old – but they don’t necessarily make headlines.

The kiss. The gay couple’s kiss in Bell’s commercial caused somewhat a scene. Intentional or not, there was a shock factor there. It spoke louder than any embrace or arm-around-shoulders. If Bell simply wanted to be “inclusive” in representing Canadians, the kiss could have been spared. To incorporate such an intimate sight was essentially unnecessary.

So what was the kiss for? Nothing more than generating conversation, of course.

With the emergence of social media, an ad’s success is measured differently today than a few years ago. The amount of blog posts, tweets and Facebook posts an ad creates are brownie points.

The short clip spread on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook; this commercial saw 10 times more views than the average Bell commercial on YouTube.

Let’s not forget, sponsors pay hefty premiums just to associate themselves with the Olympics. From there, they compete to leave the most memorable impression on viewers. Bell Canada took an educated guess at what would be the talk of the “Twitterverse” and made a bold move. This was only the second ever Bell ad to feature a gay couple (the first was this year’s Superbowl ad).

Bell Canada is all too familiar with the power of social media. The company raised millions of dollars with its #BellLetsTalk campaign earlier this year by donating 5 cents to a mental health charity every time someone uploaded the hashtag. It’s very unlikely that Bell Canada itself actually cared about the issue of mental health. But for marketers, this was a winning project because it resulted in 100 million Bell-branded posts circulating the web. The company also learned that people respond well to “making a difference,” – especially if it’s as easy as hashtagging and clicking ‘tweet.’

Surrounding the Winter Games, hashtag campaigns like #LoveSochi by Pride Toronto and #CheerstoSochi by McDonalds proved popularity in their first weeks.

So how did one of Canada’s biggest conglomerates gear up for the Olympics? By being opportunistic in a very subtle way. The insertion of the gay couple’s kiss had little to do with activism or “accurately representing Canada,” but was intended for Twitter users to jolt and share.

There is often no heart behind an ad campaign; just fabricated images of big, brave hearts. Bell’s kiss scene came off as “activist” and “inclusive,” but it was actually too brief and too punchy to be that. It just stirred up chatter without seeming opportunistic.

“The scene was always going to be part of an ad built around the diversity of the country,” said Langton. “Sochi didn’t change that, but if it’s getting the ad that much more attention, we’re good with that too.”

As if getting “that much more attention” was never a marketing plan in the first place.