Self-regulation and mental health

Jul 15th '21

The UK’s advertising watchdog ongoing commitment and ambition to make every UK ad a responsible ad, they are setting out how they seek to ensure that UK advertising is respectful of people’s mental and emotional wellbeing.


The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is part of a wider system that regulates and controls advertising; the Government sets limits for what can be advertised, Ofcom looks at TV ad timing, and local authorities consider how much advertising can appear in their public spaces. The ASA is responsible for regulating the content of the ads that so many people see on a daily basis, and we recognise the role we play in preventing harmful effects from that content.


The system of collective-regulation involves the active participation of a range of legal backstops in the consumer protection landscape. The ASA work closely with a network of partners including the Gambling Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).


What are they working on?

Advertising Codes contain strong protections for consumers and support our aim to make every UK ad responsible. To help achieve this, they’re releasing newly refreshed guidance to provide greater clarity on the topics outline below. This will help advertisers to better understand their obligations (as well as indicate to consumers what they can reasonably expect advertisers to do).


The Codes and guidance create a framework that supports responsible advertising around mental health issues; this remains an active policy area for the advertising watchdog. Over the next year they will be considering whether there are further avenues to explore or more scope to ensure that mental health issues are given due regard in our rules, processes, and decision-making. As part of this, they’re making sure that their project-based work has a planning-stage requirement to reflect on intersections with mental health issues so that they can build responsibility and well-being into our everyday work.


They also recognise the importance of being able to track the complaints they receive that refer to mental health issues, and to ensure that these are dealt with consistently and sensitively. They’re therefore reviewing the complaints handling procedures to make sure they capture the right information to do this effectively.


What do the Codes say?

When it comes to issues affecting mental health, here’s how our Advertising Codes outline what ‘responsibility’ means:



The Codes have specific rules for ads that promote or even just feature alcohol and gambling; this reflects the higher-risk nature of their consumption and participation. To ensure that the content of these ads is responsible, any imagery relating to problematic or unwise use of the products is banned. This means that ads can’t show people binge-drinking, depending on alcohol, gambling in secret, or trying to find financial security through betting.


In addition, children and young people are given enhanced protection by ensuring that ads can’t be targeting at underage consumers and that no-one under the age of 25 can be featured.


Body image

For some ads, responsibility means ensuring that unhealthy weights are not glamorised or presented as aspirational. For instance, the ASA has banned ads that present a very low body weight as admirable or glamorous. Often, these ads use poses or camera angles that overemphasise a model’s natural slimness.


Recently, the ASA banned Instagram influencer ads for beauty products because the use of filters was likely to mislead consumers about the effects of the product. While a matter of truthfulness in that specific case, there is also potential for such approaches to damage self-image when results do not (and cannot) match up to the expectations set by the ad.


Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) (who write the Codes and issue formal guidance) will undertake further work this year to assess the potential body image related harms arising from advertising and the potential impact on consumers’ mental health. It will consider whether specific restrictions should be introduced to mitigate any harms that are not already and adequately addressed by the current Code rules.



Many mental health stereotypes are harmful and/or offensive; where these appear in advertising, the ASA can take action. Ads that portray those with mental health conditions as dangerous, violent, or otherwise unpleasant because of those conditions are not acceptable.


Harmful images

Some types of imagery could be difficult to encounter for people with mental health conditions, including severe phobias, because they may trigger an adverse reaction, such as a panic attack or flashback. The ASA takes such consequences seriously and recognises that the effects are very real for those who suffer from them. However, almost any theme or image in an ad has the potential to cause an emotional or phobic reaction in some. As such, and due to the very individual nature of mental health triggers, it is impossible to take all of these into account when creating ads; touching on a theme that is uncomfortable for some with a particular sensitivity is almost inevitable. Bearing this in mind, the ASA is very unlikely to uphold against ads solely on the basis that there’s a potentially triggering aspect to them.


Nonetheless, some themes are so strongly linked to trauma or severe reactions that certain imagery should only be used with the utmost care and in a sensitive context. For example, references to self-harm, suicide, and drug addiction are all themes that must be handled carefully and, for the most part, are not suitable for responsible advertising.


In other ways, content that diminishes, makes light of, or could otherwise be seen to mock mental health conditions may also be considered harmful or offensive. Trivialisation of a condition may belittle or undermine the experiences of those living with it.


Medical claims

Medical claims in advertising are subject to strict conditions. Some conditions are sufficiently serious that medical interventions for them can only be advertised if the intervention is supervised by a suitably qualified medical professional. Several mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, OCD, and unipolar depression, would be considered to be in this category.


For some people with conditions that are resistant to typical medical intervention or for whom such approaches are unsuitable, they may find comfort and assistance in complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). While the Codes allow CAM practitioners to make general wellbeing claims, specific medical claims (such as ‘stops panic attacks’) must be backed by strong clinical evidence.



The Advertising Codes recognise that some people are more vulnerable than others, either because of a permanent or long-term circumstance (age, chronic illness) or because of a more temporary situation (debt, acute illness, bereavement). As part of being responsible, advertisers must have regard to the needs of people who are vulnerable and not seek to exploit that. Relevant vulnerabilities will vary depending on the product, the ad, and the advertising context.


Where can I find more information?

See new Advice Online articles about:



Source: ASA & CAP


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