Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
Marketers should tread carefully when referencing mental illness in ads to ensure that the reference is not socially irresponsible, or offensive. In some contexts, words such as “mad” or “bonkers” may be used in a way which makes no direct reference to mental health and as such will not generally cause offence or perpetuate harmful stereotypes. However, references to mental health must be treated with care. The closer a reference is to a specific mental health condition, rather than a general expression of unusual behaviour, the more likely it is that it will be understood as a comment on that condition and, therefore, a higher risk in terms of causing harm or serious offence.
In 2015, the ASA investigated an online ad for a Halloween costume called “Adult Skitzo Costume”, after receiving a complaint that it reinforced negative attitudes about schizophrenia and other mental health problems. On the basis of the ad’s reference to a specific mental health problem and the use of the term “Skitzo”, in conjunction with the image of the costume, the ASA considered that the ad was likely to reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health issues, and the complaint was upheld (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 28 January 2015).
On the other hand, a “Psycho Clown” was judged acceptable on the basis that ‘psycho’ was a word that was also associated with villainous horror movie characters and, in the context of the ad, was unlikely to be taken as a reference to a person genuinely suffering from mental illness (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 16 September 2015).
Irresponsible depictions of mental illness aren’t restricted to those poking fun at conditions; it also covers ensuring that damaging behaviours and serious conditions are not glamorised. While the ASA has not often had to consider this topic, suggestions that a condition or disorder that negatively affects wellbeing is desirable or glamorous, or content that encourages unhealthy behaviours (such as skipping required medication) are likely to breach the Codes.