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A quick guide to getting mental health right in your ad campaigns

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In the UK, mental health problems affect approximately 25% of the population every year. That is nearly 17 million people every single year.

If it is true that advertising can be a driver for positive change, like all things creativity, it is our responsibility to send the right messages to the people affected, to make sure that things are always portrayed in the most helpful, sensible and respectful manner.

In the most practical terms, this means following very specific guidelines to comply to certain standards, set out by regulation bodies such as the Advertising Standard Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice. But it also means thinking about mental health in a whole new way.

According to Guy Swimer, ECD at McCann Health, “Our perceptions of mental health have changed so much in recent years, and were brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. As the stigma and taboos about discussing mental health begin to fade, we’ve gained a better understanding of the issues themselves; to me, mental health is an inclusivity issue, requiring openness to fully understand and respond appropriately.”

Much like many other issues relating to social good and positive change, mental health must be more than a simple tick box in your next campaign. It must be approached with genuine interest to make an impact, changing people’s lives for the better.

That said, there are some specific practical steps you must do to ensure your campaign is in accordance with the established guidelines of advertising regulatory bodies.

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Image credit: Wojtek Lubinski

The practical side

It is important to ensure that your ads and campaigns don’t sound harmful for those affected, and that they don’t portray a misleading picture for society as a whole. The Committee of Advertising Practice has created a code with a number of rules to help you avoid this issue. Below we’ll summarise the most important aspects, though we recommend taking a look at the CAP website for more specific details.

Social Responsibility

We as professionals in the advertising scene have to be mindful about our responsibilities towards society. Ads should not be created to exploit the young, immature or vulnerable, be it mentally or socially. The ASA often scans the market for ads which seem to break these rules; you would be surprised how many surface all the time.

For instance, in 2012 a Facebook ad was taken down for suggesting that a certain alcohol brand would improve a consumer’s physical or mental ability. These claims are not only dangerous for those vulnerable to alcohol consumption, but to consumers and society as a whole.

It may sound like a very obvious point to make, but you should keep in mind that not all advertisers will be honest about their products. The appeal of growth and sales can sometimes push certain teams to make fake claims – and consumers will suffer for it.

The CAP Code also contains a number of rules specific to the gambling sector. Similarly to alcohol consumption, advertisers should not claim that gambling can be a solution to depression, loneliness or other related family issues.

Harm and Offence

According to the CAP Code’s specific rules on Harm and Offence, ads concerning mental health should not cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age.

No one in their right mind should ever think of doing this, of course. All it takes is some common sense in most of these cases – or at least one should hope so. But there is a fine line in some cases which some advertisers may be willing to walk; for example, advertisers should avoid talking about mental health conditions in a way that could cause offence or distress, such as falsely referencing disabilities in the case of some specific conditions.

In short, the evergreen rule applies always and anyways: do your research. If you’re not sure, ask the experts.

What would an ad that doesn’t follow these two rules look like? In 2016, a banner for an online betting company stated “Save Yourself” alongside a silhouette of a man hanging from a rope by his neck. This ad was both offensive to people with suicidal thoughts and making false social responsibility claims. Thankfully, the ASA was able to take it down.

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Image credit: Nuno Mendes

You’re not a substitute for medical consultation

Lastly, you should never falsely claim that your product can help treat certain conditions which require medical supervision. Advertisers in the healthy and beauty sector may sometimes make these claims, but there are a number of very specific conditions in CAP’s Advertising Guidance that should not be approached lightly.

Some of the listed conditions include mental health issues too. Here are some examples:

  • Addictions
  • Alcoholism
  • Anaemia
  • Anorexia
  • Eating Disorders
  • Erection Problems
  • Obesity
  • Paralysis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Suicidal Thoughts

And many more. You are advised to take a look at the full list by the ASA and CAP to ensure your campaign doesn’t treat these conditions superficially. In most cases, proper medical supervision should be sought to ensure no harm comes to the direct consumer.

There is some leeway in the case of other conditions (which are listed in the same CAP document), but when questioned by the ASA, marketers and advertisers should have robust evidence to prove their claims and prove the effectiveness of their product.

Getting it right starts from within

It is certainly useful to have practical guidance for marketers who want to approach mental health, but in truth, talking about mental health doesn’t stop at sheer compliance. There is a certain amount of sensitivity required, some tact, and a genuine intent to drive positive change in the world.

As mentioned, advertisers who simply jump on the bandwagon to tick off a box risk causing more harm than good, perhaps by discussing mental health conditions in a superficial manner, or without some full understanding of their implications. And as the stigma around mental health is lifted more and more each year, it is increasingly important to get these issues right. Audiences will need to be educated, and your campaigns have the power to raise awareness in a society which is still trying to understand the full extent of mental health.

Don’t approach the rules and regulations on this page as a to-do list to make your next campaign compliant. Be sensitive, be mindful, be genuinely interested in the issues you’re discussing. It should sound obvious to many who are reading this piece, but rest assured, it really isn’t. Too many marketers will approach the topic superficially – and as a result, the most informed and affected audiences will be able to call them out on their faults.

Which doesn’t mean you should only worry about not being called out, of course. That kind of mindset would lead to a whole set of other issues, for both your business and your clients.

Getting mental health right should be authentic and start from within. According to Guy from McCann Health: “Creating impact in this area has never been more important than now and getting it right has to start from within and be authentic. It’s why every year, we as McCann Worldgroup close our doors for one day across our network to discuss issues of inclusivity, diversity and individual worth. Because ultimately, living and breathing these issues impacts everything we do: client interactions, our approach to creativity, and producing work with mindfulness at its core. That’s when we can inspire truly meaningful change.”

Header image: Nuno Mendes

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