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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.



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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in TV (5)


    it's time we talked about #BellLetsTalk

    I’ve wanted to write about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign for a couple of years. I’ve tweeted about it in the past, knowing I wanted to say more, but then the campaign ended, and life got in the way, as it does.

    Then life got in the way again this year, in an ugly way. And as the 2016 version of the campaign began to appear, I knew I had to finally articulate what I was feeling about #BellLetsTalk, and why.

    First, let’s celebrate the existence of a campaign about mental health, and how strong much of the campaign content is

    I write this being aware that we urgently needed the campaign. Our society has done an outstanding job of keeping depression, anxiety and mental health out of public discourse, so instead of being understanding or compassionate, we’ve slapped people with destructive labels like “can’t handle it” or “sensitive.” People suffering from depression knew that they couldn’t possibly be open about how they felt. 

    So having a company like Bell stand up for mental health and encourage Canadians to participate in talking about the issue and the stigma was an enormous step forward. I can’t express my gratitude enough to the people at Bell for their initial vision and bravery.

    And in many ways the campaign delivers what we needed. When you visit the site or see a lot of the content in social media, there are strong and real voices talking about depression and anxiety. Both Clara Hughes and Michael Landsberg are brave and articulate in talking about what depression is and isn’t, and the expanding roster of pubic figures who have been willing to lend their images and stories to the campaign is really encouraging – Serena Ryder, Mary Walsh, Kendra Fisher, Howie Mandel and many other people. 

    The videos are open and honest. (Some of them are a bit strangely art directed, but that’s beside the point.) It’s easy to share the content through social channels. There are tools and resources available on the site that have been developed in partnership with CAMH, and they’re full of good advice about how to talk about mental health. 

    All of this to say, once you click into it, once you’re engaged with the issues of mental health and depression, it’s a strong campaign.

    So why is the awareness part of Bell Let’s Talk so terrible?

    As I write this, I’m aware of billboards and out of home (OOH), some radio spots and a TV/cinema spot. 


    [*UPDATE: This video has since been taken down by Bell, and it was by far the least helpful spot in the campaign. The others, which are much clearer, are here and here.]

    Let’s start with the cinema/TV spot. It’s about a worker and boss having an awkward conversation about the worker’s absence. The boss is alternately (and confusingly) sympathetic and judgemental, until finally the worker asks for “a break.” The boss finally appears to have some sort of transformational understanding of an unspoken condition. 

    The spot isn’t written or edited very clearly. The apparent outer/inner dialogue of the boss is confusing, with only a slight jump in the edit and a loss of background noise to let you know it’s her inner voice. The first time I saw the spot I didn’t understand what was going on at all. Only on the third viewing did I get it. (At least I think I get it.) And if it takes me that much effort to understand, after over 20 years in this business, I can’t see John and Jane Q. Public, the ostensible “real” people of Canada and the spot’s target audience, bothering to spend a lot of time winnowing out the spot’s message.

    Because it does make me work really hard to understand that the boss’s attitudes have changed. Or that there are two kinds of attitude about mental health. Or that this is what the worker expects from the boss. Or something. 

    And I don’t understand what triggers the boss’s apparent transformation. Based on everything that’s come before in the script, the worker saying she needs a break is more likely to trigger a response from her boss of, “Yeah right, we all need a holiday, get back to work.”

    I have heard a radio spot with a similar scenario to the cinema/TV, but I’ve only heard it once, so I can’t comment on it. (I did hear a different radio spot for the campaign today, with Clara Hughes talking openly about mental health and mercifully it was much more straightforward.)

    So it’s puzzling, and it’s a missed opportunity to change awareness, but it’s merely bad execution. I can see that the people creating the campaign knew that negative attitudes about mental health are actually part of the problem we as a society have with our mental health. They were trying to support the campaign message that we need to be able to talk more openly about conditions like depression and anxiety – because they are medical conditions, not moral failings. 

    When simplifying the issue distorts the message

    You’ve seen the billboards and other out-of-home executions. They’re everywhere. Simple but not stark, branded consistently with the microsite and the rest of the campaign – an image of one of the celebrity spokespeople on white, and a headline that’s about talking.

    So what’s my problem?  

    The billboard headlines are about how we can all turn sad face emojis into happy face emojis (or go from thumbs down emojis to thumbs up emojis) on #BellLetsTalk day. 

    I find this stunning. Because it’s a betrayal of everything the campaign is trying to do.

    It’s the opposite of the message that the campaign was created to spread. It’s the opposite of what we want Canadians to think when it comes to depression and anxiety.  

    People who are depressed will often have smiles on their faces. They’ll do whatever it takes to get through the day – smiling, laughing, joking, trying desperately not to betray their internal turmoil, their sense of inadequacy, their emotional distance from what’s going on around them. 

    You may look sad when you’re depressed. Or you may look happy. Whether the edges of your mouth are curled down or up has nothing to do with the emotional tidal waves that are drowning you inside. 

    Let’s talk about me for a second 

    I know this because I’ve lived it. To my coworkers and friends, I was fine and happy this summer – until suddenly I wasn’t. 

    For months I’d been grappling with what I thought was low-grade depression, thinking that I could handle it. I knew the signs, after all; I’d suffered before, and was aware of the range of pressures that was triggering how I felt. If I kept going, kept on exercising regularly and gobbling vitamin D, trying to deal with the pressures, I’d eventually be fine. So I kept smiling and kept going.

    Until one day I couldn’t. I had an incident that demonstrated that my mental health was clearly not under my control. 

    I am more fortunate than most, in that my boss and my agency were supportive of me and enabled me to take a break from work. I’m also fortunate in being able to afford a therapist, and in the fact that my health plan covered my medication. 

    I know most people aren’t that fortunate. That’s why we so urgently need the #BellLetsTalk campaign, after all.

    My own path took a renewed focus on exercise, vitamin D, meditation and yes medication – all different ways of healing and (in the way I visualized it) reconnecting my brain to my body, feeling whole.

    Above all it took accepting my condition, instead of trying to deny it. As my therapist only half-jokingly put it, “Given all the stuff you’ve been facing, not being depressed would be crazy.”

    I tell you all this because if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post, is that depression is not about feeling sad.

    I’m going to repeat that because people who haven’t suffered make this mistake all the time, and they need to stop. And this is what enrages me about the 2016 version of the #BellLetsTalk campaign.

    Depression is not about feeling sad. It doesn’t mean you need cheering up. It’s not something that the people in your life should ever think is about you somehow not feeling happy enough. And it’s definitely not something that can be boiled down to a smiley face or a thumbs down emoji.

    Depression is often about feeling nothing at all. It’s about feeling worthless and pointless. It’s about feeling like your bones are made of lead, so heavy that you literally can’t lift yourself out of bed. It’s about the fact that going to work takes all the energy you have, and so does coming home, each and every day. It’s about the constant drain of not showing any of this to anyone, because you can’t leave any hint to your spouse or boss or friend that you’re so fundamentally unsure of your existence. Because you’re sure that no one will understand if you do start to talk – you’ve heard “cheer up” or “pull yourself together” or “don’t be such a baby” before. And hearing that makes you feel even more isolated because you’re sure they’re right, but you can’t and you don’t know how, and suddenly it’s all even more difficult to bear. 

    So why would Bell and their agency get it so wrong?

    I don’t want this to be about some agency weasel criticizing another agency’s work. I don’t particularly care which agency did this; I do find it interesting that no agency is easily identified with the past couple of years of the campaign. (An agency called lg2 out of Quebec created the original campaign several years ago, which I had no problem with.)

    Based on my experience, I can only offer a few tentative thoughts about why the awareness work might have turned out the way it did:

    “We need to get people to participate in #BellLetsTalk day to have conversations about mental health in social media, so we’ll use emojis because they’re so common in mobile and social.” Assuming that you have to dumb down the issue you’re fighting by misrepresenting it and reinforcing negative stereotypes seems a little self defeating, no?

    “Who cares? It’s only a starting point – once people engage with the content they’ll see the deeper issues.” But everyone in this business knows that most people don’t engage with the deeper content of any campaign; only a relatively small percentage of people click links or watch the landing page videos. Those few precious initial seconds of audience attention must be used to change attitudes, not reinforce stereotypes.

    “Talking too much about depression turns people off. We want people to engage and help, so we need to keep the message positive.” Much as the donations from the #BellLetsTalk campaign are helpful, they aren’t the solution. Changing people’s attitudes about depression and anxiety is the solution – as several of the celebrity videos point out.

    Three possible scenarios, none of them valid reasons for misrepresenting what depression is. That’s what pisses me off. 

    The people running the campaign failed to understand that their message can’t misrepresent the disease 

    By filling their ads with smiley face emojis and thumbs down emojis that obviously stand for depression and whatever its opposite is supposed to be, #BellLetsTalk makes the fundamental mistake of trivializing depression by saying that it is about being sad – one of the societal attitudes that the rest of the campaign is trying to change. Confusing depression with feeling sad is one of the things that makes people not take depression or anxiety seriously in the first place. 

    As the standard bearer for mental health in Canada, #BellLetsTalk can’t repeat the misunderstandings we’re all trying to change. There’s no excuse.

    That’s how the campaign needs to be better. Because people I know and love need it to be better. Hell, because I need it to be better.

    And the public figures involved who have been so fearless and vocal about sharing their stories deserve better.

    Because it could so easily have been better.

    There are lots of stats about how much mental health issues cost us as a society. But the real cost is personal and human. Depression and anxiety make us less than we can be, by robbing us of our emotions and our relationships and our passions. They can steal the best parts of our lives. 

    But we don’t have to let that happen, not if we acknowledge the insidious truths about mental health.

    I wish Bell knew that.


    are you trying hard enough to brighten your smile?

    I try not to comment on campaigns currently in market. It's not fair to trash other people's work, not when I know all too well the challenges of getting good work out the door. And I've done my fair share of, let's be honest, crap.

    But the Crest 3D Whitestrips spot out there right now is absolutely horrendous. (Okay, not as horrendous as the Days of Our Lives product placement stuff pointed out to me by Chris Seguin, but still.) You know, the "Audition in two weeks, brighten your smile," spot.

    The acting is at the level of a porn movie or, more charitably, a high school play. But the editing choices are ghastly, truly awful, as evidenced most brutally by the wink to camera at the end. It plays like an SCTV parody. It feels so programmed, such a transparent execution of the brief, that I almost wonder if there was a creative team involved at all. (And I know there was, I know they're cringing, I know there's a kernel of a great concept in the spot that got watered down and focus grouped to death.)

    I just saw the second phase of the campaign, where the same woman is getting married and yet we're not supposed to notice – they've even redubbed her in an effort to cover their tracks.

    There's so little respect for the audience in this work that I almost don't consider it advertising. It's simply a statement of product features that's been shot to look like an ad. And as much as P&G is, well, kind of a successful company, it doesn't get much more depressing than that.


    wow, there's a lot of suckage out there

    Having just got back from a week of lacking civilized things like Twitter, Chatroulette and the Slap Chop, it's literally overwhelming how much content is being hurled at the folks who reside in civilization every moment.

    I've returned to the inevitable 300 new emails (a low total due to the out of office notification) and out of habit threw the TV on. The lack of importance, relevance or, well, meaning in what I saw was astonishing. Assorted teen stupidity, assorted housewife stupidity, assorted stupidity from cultures all over the world, interrupted by infomercials for pointless kitchen products and get-rich-quick schemes. It really struck me that there's a lot of things being put on air just to fill up time, or to aid in the marketing of other things. And that's just not good programming. (Or smart marketing.)

    The repetition of all this crap is depressing. As the number of channels grows, the number of content providers seems to shrink, as do the budgets for producing shows. So the same homogenized content shows up across several apparently unrelated channels. And every network operates the same way.

    And given that we caught a lot of radio on the way home, it's depressing that radio, with its far lower operating budgets, also finds the need to repeat playlists and on-air talent from station to station, and community to community.

    The internet (for now) offers us more voices, more independence of thought. As traditional media cower from unique voices and do anything to maximize dollars, we readers and citizens and consumers must turn to the only medium that offers insight, and allow us a measure of control.


    you mean, broadcast TV isn't the only way to receive this so-called "video" in the comfort of your own home?

    Sitting here trying unsuccessfully to focus on work, and I've just realized that You Only Live Twice is on what used to be CHCH, Hamilton's local channel 11, but which now seems to be some wacky movie channel that shows a lot of old movies using really old, unrestored prints with old school pan-and-scan. (Unlike certain other channels.)

    Regardless, after seeing this in the Rogers listings, I hit "11" on the remote (which I still occasionally call a converter) and settle in to watch. Why? Because I guess I still appreciate the value of being a passive consumer of content – a viewer.

    I don't download any shows, or buy anything other than music off iTunes; I don't have a PVR; I don't often use Rogers on Demand; I don't have a lot of DVDs sitting around. I seem to prefer being dependent on the timing and selections of the once proud species known as network programmers. Which is idiotic, in a way; I hate being dictated to in other similar contexts, such as music. I'm a notorious radio station/CD/iPod flipper in the car.

    What makes this even more bizarre is that one of the few DVDs I actually own is You Only Live Twice; I can see this movie anytime, with far better picture and sound, widescreen.

    And yet here I am. I know it's part habit, part laziness. But there are two other factors here:

    1) Broadcast TV is, or was, a shared experience. The first time You Only Live Twice aired on ABC, in the mid '70s, it was like all the Bond movies a huge ratings generator; millions watched, and for lots of us it was our first exposure to Bond movies. We all talked about it the next day. Just as later we talked about MASH, or WKRP, or hell, the Star Wars Christmas special. You watched, all at the same time, or you didn't share the experience, because there were no VCRs, no playback, no rentals, no nothing. Now, the only comparable experience is truly a massive event, like the Olympic gold medal hockey game, or September 11th.

    2) It's also lack of commitment; if I actually put a DVD on, I commit myself to watching it. I'm doing something active. But with broadcast TV, I retain my distance and passivity. I pay only as much attention as I want. So I can do other things, like, say, write a blog post.

    Yes, I know it makes no sense. But it's how I am, and I suspect there are a lot of us out there – holdovers, weird analog/digital cyborgs. People who still use phones primarily for calling other people. People who, when it comes to sitting in front of the TV, still ask, "What's on?"

    And by the way, for having "taken a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge," Bond's Japanese is hilarious, truly bad.


    how to be a genius on absolutely no budget whatsoever

    In lieu of a real post, please enjoy a taste of The Sandbaggers, a brilliant spy show from the 1970s on British television. It shows you what you can do with pretty much zero budget – great writing and actors who absolutely believe in their roles combine to create the most tension I've seen outside of Hitchcock, and these episodes whip along at a speed that Peter Hunt would be proud of.

    The Ipcress File was marketed at the anti-Bond, and yes, it's cool in an unBondian way. But The Sandbaggers is the real deal – spies risking their lives in the midst of bureaucracy and politics. Pretty much, I think you'd have to say, the way it is.

    No one has ever come close to Ian Mackintosh's vision on this kind of budget, before or since.