Health: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Jan 28th '21

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) understands that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as ‘winter depression’, is a mood disorder whose sufferers experience depressive symptoms in the winter or, less frequently, in the summer. It reoccurs year after year with normal mental health throughout most of the year. The most difficult months for SAD sufferers tends to be January and February, with symptoms often subsiding during the spring and summer months.


CAP understands that some marketers offer in-clinic therapies or self-care medical devices (such as SAD lamps) and present those as treatments for SAD or for the symptoms of SAD.


What types of claim are likely to be a problem?

Because SAD is often associated with depression, the condition is considered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)  to be one for which medical supervision should be sought. As such, there is a risk that presenting a device or a therapy as a treatment for SAD (or the symptoms of SAD that are associated with depression) could be seen to discourage essential treatment, unless that treatment is to be carried out under the supervision of a suitability qualified health professional (Rule 12.2).


In 2019, the ASA considered advertising claims to treat SAD using vitamin D and UV exposure (through sunbed therapy).  In that case the ASA ruled that because it had not seen evidence that the sunbed treatment was carried out under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional, claims to treat the condition discouraged essential treatment for SAD (Unvilla Ltd, 6 November 2019).


Marketers are reminded that even if they are able to demonstrate that the therapy or device used in the treatment of SAD is being carried out under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional, they would still need to hold clinical evidence to support claims of efficacy (Rule 12.1).


Many years ago CAP had understood that there was evidence of efficacy for the treatment of some of the symptoms of SAD using phototherapy and that such claims were considered to be generally acceptable provided the marketer could demonstrate that the device or therapy being marketed emitted light between 3,000 and 10,000 lux.  However, since that time the NHS has published its own advice on treatments for SAD, suggesting there was mixed evidence with regard the efficacy of light therapy.  That does not mean that efficacy claims are no longer acceptable, but it does indicate that the ASA is likely to expect marketers to hold robust clinical evidence to support claims that their phototherapy treatment or device can be used to treat SAD, or the symptoms associated with SAD.


Marketers should check with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) if they need guidance on the classification of medical devices.


Marketers are reminded that they would also need to hold clinical evidence for any other advertising claims about the benefits of their therapy or device.


See CAP Guidance on Substantiation.


Source: CAP


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 ASA. CAP’s Advice Online entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.


How can we help!

Whether or not something breaches the Code in this way can often be a fine line – marketers who are unsure whether their ads are likely to breach the Code are invited to contact the Copy Advice team.


At LS Consultancy are experts in Marketing and Compliance, and work with a range of firms to assist with improving their documents, processes and systems to help mitigate risk.


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