Friday, April 10, 2015

Trodden toes

It probably sounded great at the marketing meeting. Maybe it was even done with the best of intentions. But this #zibibike thing is leaving me feeling like someone's stomped into my living room and started crashing around talking loudly about something no one else had been talking about.

Recently, Windmill Developments bought the islands in the river between Ottawa and Gatineau (and bits of the Gatineau-side mainland), which used to be the site of the old Domtar plant and are now basically covered in abandoned industrial buildings (and one rock climbing gym). The idea was to construct a development a bit like the Distillery District in Toronto, "upcycling" the old plant buildings, creating a pedestrian commercial zone, and adding condos.

When I heard about this I was pretty excited. It sounded like the kind of interesting, attractive - and green! - showpiece district that Ottawa could frankly use a lot more of.

But since then there have been some fumbles. For one thing, they proudly announced, not long ago, that the site would be called "Zibi," which is the Algonquin word for "river." Only to have the chief of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation point out that the site was disputed as sacred land way before Windmill bought it, the band has not agreed to support the development, and using the name might give the false impression that they do support it. Still, over the objections of, you know, the people whose language it is, they went forward with the name.

Then a few days ago, someone noticed a bike spraypainted orange with the Zibi logo on it, on a ring-and-post.
It didn't take long for other cyclists to notice that the bikes were taking up bike parking. And they were popping up all over.
After some initial confusion, it started becoming clear that this was a marketing stunt. Relying on word of mouth, Zibi was getting people to post pictures of themselves on social media with the bikes. For each post, Zibi would donate $1 to Causeway, which is an organization that helps people with barriers to work, like disabilities, find employment. All fine. And maybe undertaken with good intentions. Demonstrate good corporate citizenship by doing something really visible for charity and get visibility for your green development at the same time, all while "harnessing the power of social media." But it leaves a bad taste.
For one thing, the number of people actually taking selfies looks pretty minimal. The money going to Causeway, so far, is negligible, it seems (at $1 a post: how many posts were they expecting?). It's not even clear what gets the money donated - mentioning the hashtag, or do you have to post a picture? And in fact, a lot of the selfies I did see posted seemed like maybe they were posted by social media plants, to "get the ball rolling." (That's just a guess on my part: how can you tell if a tweet is for real or forced, aside from subtle stuff like who is tagged in it and how it's written?)

And the bikes, spraypainted orange and locked to bike parking, are rubbing some of the people Zibi would want on their side the wrong way. The bikes have been ruined. Even if they were junkers to start with, they're now definitely going to end up in a landfill when the stunt is over. And they're taking up bike parking in a city where there are already too few bike racks. Inconveniencing the very people you want, eventually, to ride their environmentally conscious bikes to your shiny new eco-district to ethically spend their dollars.

It's like spraypainting books shut and nailing them to public shelves to advertise your new library.

It also smacks heavily of greenwashing. Donating to Causeway is just an excuse to get Zibi's name and brand colour out there and disseminated: they're hijacking people's charity and willingness to participate in a good cause for advertising. And it also feels like they're trying to hijack me as a cyclist. Maybe that's just because I know that the active cycling community in Ottawa is pretty strong and chatty and maybe they knew that too and thought we'd all jump on board. We're behind painting bikes white as memorials to fallen cyclists, after all, so why wouldn't we be behind painting bikes orange to advertise a new development?

But they might have been better off not going for the "organic" word of mouth factor and instead launching this campaign more publicly. It would have given them a chance to get people on side, rather than having them find out about the campaign when they can't lock their bike up to a local rack. It would have felt more like they were engaging with the community and less like they were sneaking in with their terribly clever marketing scheme to trick us into boosting their brand for them.


  1. If I see one of these locked to a bike rack, I'll send my selfie to bylaw and report an abandoned bike

  2. Yeah, to pretty much everything you said. Cultural and physical appropriation from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation, some members of which are opposed to the development. The environment waste of all those bikes and paint. Taking bike parking away from those who actually use and need it. The whole thing is just icky.

  3. I like the campaign. Great visual way to support a local charity.

  4. It's fantastic, they are obviously advertising, but also giving money to charity while promoting cycling. Win-win to me.

  5. What's great about this country is that we're still allowed to think for ourselves and maybe speak out for now (bill C-51 aside).

    This campaign rubs me the wrong way. It is about green washing and it is how the rest of us gets to support the richest most exploitative group of people and not even notice that we're doing it. I think the chained, spray painted bikes well represent how the most privileged will take your space and tell you that it's their entitlement.

    What I've learned: Canada is a settler, colonial, apartheid state that practices racism and genocide on its indigenous people. We in Ottawa live on stolen Algonquin land. There is shame and guilt about our history but that needn't stop us from acknowledging the hurt we have caused. Not speaking about it apparently hasn't worked.

    The windmill advertising campaign is for a development that shows that non-indigenous people will not be content until they occupy every last bit of land no matter how sacred.

    Our leaders (city, provincial, federal) continue to violate every promise they made to indigenous people. They misrepresent us because we are struggling to be good people, the best we can to live in peace with others.

    My wish: this year Canadians start putting their money where their mouth is and strive to be half as welcoming, non-judgemental and willing to share their riches, as the First Nations people have.

  6. I like it. It's something different and fun. Nice to see something a bit "outside the box" in the city.

  7. Nothing to like about this trick, once you know the facts: stealing bikes spaces with a stolen name to promote stolen land.

  8. Chaudière Island and Falls are sacred Algonquin land. In Ottawa's master plan, they were to be public green space for all - not a place to build more condos for rich dudes.