Mental health issues are an ongoing concern for many people in the UK, likely more than ever in this exceptionally difficult year. With that in mind, advertisers have a responsibility to make sure their ads don’t have a detrimental impact on those affected. There are 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 key themes.
All ads must be prepared 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-specific sections of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) 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, or those who are mentally or socially vulnerable (rule 18.1). In 2012, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that a Facebook status on an alcohol brand’s page had broken this rule by suggesting the product would have a positive effect on consumers’ mental and/or physical abilities.
The Code states that gambling ads should not suggest that gambling can provide an escape from problems such as loneliness or depression. 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.
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.
Rule 4.1 states that ads should not cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of disability, as well as the other protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010. While not all mental health problems are classed as a disability, advertisers should nonetheless avoid referencing 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. 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.
In some cases, ads can break both the rules on offence and 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 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.
Referring 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), including certain mental health problems. Advertisers should refer to this list before creating an ad that will refer to a specific condition, 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).
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