A guide to treating Mental Health responsibly in ads

May 23rd '24

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2024), read on for a guide to treating mental health responsibly in ads.


Social responsibility and offence

Advertisers should ensure references to mental health in ads are approached with care and responsibility to make sure their ads don’t have a detrimental impact on those affected or cause widespread offence or harm. Advertising rules state ‘Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.’ and is likewise reflected in sector-sections of the Code, such as those relating to Gambling and Alcohol.


Under the Alcohol rules, for example, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code states that care should be taken not to exploit the young, or those who are mentally or socially vulnerable. Marketing communications must also not imply that drinking alcohol can overcome boredom, loneliness, or other problems, nor should they imply that alcohol has therapeutic qualities. In 2023, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that a paid Facebook ad for an alcohol brand had breached the Code by suggesting the alcohol could overcome problems or had therapeutic qualities.


Fear or distress

Marketers should be mindful that those affected by mental illness may find certain imagery ‘triggering’ or traumatic. Ad rules state ‘Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention.’ Such complaints would be considered within the overall context of the ad as to whether it is likely to cause offence, fear, or distress.


In 2022, complaints about an ad that raised awareness of suicide were not upheld. The ASA ruled that, although the ad was likely to be distressing to some viewers, the overall message of the ad to look beyond the surface to save lives from suicide and seek support to facilitate that, meant that any distress caused was justified by the ad’s message.


On the other hand, in 2019, an ad for a life insurance provider which featured an image of a laughing skull alongside the strapline “life insurance to die for”, did not contain direct references to suicide yet was found to trivialise the issue of suicide. The ASA considered that it was therefore irresponsible, including to those who had personally been affected by suicide, and likely to cause widespread offence.



Advertisers should be mindful that when creating an ad aimed at children, their mental health should also be considered. In 2019, the ASA banned an ad for a social media app aimed at 7-12 year olds, on the basis that the strong emphasis on gaining likes and followers could cause children to develop a perception that popularity on social media is inherently valuable, which would likely be detrimental to their self-esteem.



Ad rules state that ads should not cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of disability, as well as other ‘protected characteristics’ defined by the Equality Act 2010.  While not all mental health problems are classed as a disability, advertisers should avoid referencing mental health conditions in a way that risks causing serious or widespread offence.


In 2016, the ASA investigated a complaint about a banner ad for an online betting company, which stated “SAVE YOURSELF” alongside a silhouette of someone hanging from a rope by their neck.  The ASA agreed 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.


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.  The complaint was upheld, 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.


All references to mental health should 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.


Treatment claims

Marketers should be aware that when advertising health, beauty and slimming products, including therapies, 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, including certain mental health problems. 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.


In 2022, the ASA upheld a complaint about a paid-for Facebook post for a private online counselling and therapy provider, after the ASA considered the ad was irresponsible because it could have had the effect of discouraging consumers from seeking therapy through their General Practitioner (GP) and the NHS, by implying that they may not be treated sympathetically and would have to wait for a long period of time to receive help for serious mental health conditions.


Source: CAP


About CAP

The CAP is the sister organisation of the ASA and is responsible for writing the Advertising Codes.


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