Getting it right on mental health

Mental health problems affect approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK every year, and advertisers have a responsibility to make sure their ads don’t have an adverse impact on those affected or on society more generally.  The CAP Code contains a number of rules that can help advertisers avoid this, from sector-specific requirements about social responsibility to rules on the types of conditions that can be referred to in ads for medicines and medical treatments.  Read on for three important questions that advertisers should ask to make sure their ad campaigns don’t break these rules.

Is it socially responsible?

While it may be tempting for advertisers to push boundaries or provoke debate, they must still prepare their ads with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.  This principle is explicitly stated in rule 1.3, and is likewise reflected in sector-sections of the Code, such as those relating to Gambling and Alcohol.

In the rules on Alcohol advertising, for example, the CAP Code states that care should be taken not to exploit the young, the immature, or those who are mentally or socially vulnerable (rule 18.1).  In 2012, the ASA found that a Facebook status on an alcohol brand’s page had broken this rule by irresponsibly suggesting the product would have a positive effect on consumers’ mental and/or physical abilities.

As well as requiring that Gambling ads should be prepared with particular emphasis on protecting vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited (rule 16.1), the Code states that gambling ads should not suggest that gambling can provide an escape from problems such as loneliness or depression (rule 16.3.3).  In 2017, the ASA ruled that an ad had broken this rule because it described a consumer who had been “depressed” as a result of his wife’s illness and medical bills, and that gambling had provided an escape and solution from these problems.  Advertisers should therefore avoid referring to mental health problems in this context.

Could it cause offence?

In the rules on Harm and Offence, rule 4.1 states that ads should not cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age, all of which are classed as ‘protected characteristics’ by the Equality Act 2010.  Although not all mental health problems are likely to be classed as a disability, advertisers should always avoid making references to mental health conditions in a way that risks causing serious or widespread 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.

In some cases, ads can break the rules on offence as well as those on social responsibility.  In 2016, the ASA received a complaint about a banner ad for an online betting company, which stated “SAVE YOURSELF” alongside a silhouette of a man hanging from a rope by his neck.  The ASA upheld the complaint that the ad was socially irresponsible and likely to cause serious offence, in particular to those affected by suicide, mental health conditions or gambling problems.

Does it refer to a condition for which medical supervision should be sought?

When advertising health, beauty and slimming products, including therapies, marketers often refer to conditions that they aim to treat.  

However, there are a number of conditions that should only be referred to if the advice or treatment will be conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional (rule 12.2). CAP’s Advertising Guidance on this topic lists the medical conditions that are covered by this rule, and a number of mental health problems are included on this list. Before referring to medical conditions in ads for their treatments or devices, then, advertisers should check their claims against this list, and only include a reference to the condition if a suitably qualified medical practitioner will be present.

For mental health problems that don’t appear on this list, or where there will be a suitably qualified medical practitioner present, marketers must still hold robust documentary evidence to prove the effectiveness of their product or treatment (rule 12.1).

If you would like any further advice on your advertising, the Copy Advice team is here to help.


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