Marketers warned against using mental health stereotypes at Halloween

The Marketing Society and Time to Change have warned brands against resorting to marketing gimmicks that stigmatise mental health problems during Halloween.

Asda: withdrew a 'mental patient fancy dress costume' that was available for sale on its website in 2013
Asda: withdrew a 'mental patient fancy dress costume' that was available for sale on its website in 2013

In a joint letter, The Marketing Society chief executive Gemma Greaves and Time to Change director Susan Baker said it was time to "stamp out" such gimmicks "once and for all" during Halloween.

The two women warned against brands that threaten to "derail" progress that has been made in recent years that encourage people with mental health concerns to get help and support.

In particular, ads and displays that featured "horror-filled asylums" and "scary 'psycho' costumes" were among the activations that would count as undesireable gimmicks.

Such gimmicks "fuel deep rooted misconceptions that still surround mental illness; undermining efforts to show that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and making it harder for people to reach out for help", the two women wrote in a letter published today.

In 2013 Asda apologised after for advertising a "mental patient" costume on its website with the line: "Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume."

The letter in full:

Letter to marketers: this Halloween let’s stamp out stigmatising mental illness marketing gimmicks once and for all

Time to Change is the social movement which is changing the way people think and act about mental health – in schools, workplaces and communities. We invest heavily in social marketing campaigns because we know that advertising is a powerful way to shape public attitudes. Our adverts challenge out-dated stereotypes and show that mental health problems can happen to anyone. It’s normal, it’s every day and it’s ok to talk and reach out for support. 

Yet each year, as Halloween approaches, we’re confronted with the scale of work that lies ahead – well-known brands threatening to derail progress with prominent ads and displays featuring horror filled asylums and scary ‘psycho’ costumes. Halloween is a great opportunity to have fun but these gimmicks can cause real harm. They fuel deep rooted misconceptions that still surround mental illness; undermining efforts to show that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and making it harder for people to reach out for help.

It’s also bad for business. Public attitudes towards mental illness are improving – by almost 10% in the last decade, according to our latest research. Huge amounts of media coverage have been devoted to mental health this year, with everyone from sporting heroes and musicians to the royals speaking out about their own mental health struggles. This is having an impact. The public is becoming more aware of mental health problems and the need to be supportive towards those affected. They’re becoming active - making complaints about irresponsible products and promotions, and sometimes boycotting those retailers who fail to keep pace with changing public attitudes. 

Earlier this month, Time to Change and The Marketing Society announced a new partnership – Marketing for Change. Driven by a working group of some of the leading names in marketing, our joint aim is to make mental health an everyday conversation and empower marketers to create mentally healthy workplaces for their staff. Time to Change works with hundreds of leading brands but we’re particularly excited about this partnership because of the unique power that marketers have to shape public attitudes and ensure their brands keep pace with positive social change. 

So, this Halloween, we want to harness the power of marketers and ask you to make it your businesses to take a stand. If your company or clients have gone down the outdated stereotypes route, or are thinking about it, be an advocate for why they shouldn’t. Together, we can stamp out stigmatising mental illness marketing gimmicks  for good. 

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change; Gemma Greaves, chief executive, The Marketing Society

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