CAP publishes guidance on depicting mental health conditions

Published on 25 November 2021

What steps must advertisers take in order to ensure that any depiction of mental illness is not socially irresponsible or offensive?

The key takeaway
CAP has published new guidance with a focus on mental health issues, including addiction, triggering/harmful images, medical claims, and suicide.

The background
On 15 July 2021, CAP published a series of new advice notes in order to help advertisers ensure their ads are respectful of peoples mental and emotional wellbeing. The aim of the guidance is to ensure that every UK ad is responsible when it comes to issues regarding mental health.

The development
The advice published focused on the depiction of metal health in the context of a number of specific areas. The advice states that ads that refer to mental illness must not be socially irresponsible or offensive. It is important to note that this is not limited at insensitivity toward mental health, but also glamorising mental health conditions. Specifically, the guidance offers advice on a range of mental health issues, including how advertisers can properly depict or reference the following themes:

  • Addiction: The advice notes that there are already specific rules regarding alcohol and gambling. The rules require that such ads must not show irresponsible use of the products or behaviours that may trigger addition.
  • Stereotyping of mental health: The ASA notes that many stereotypes of mental health are harmful and offensive. Portraying those with mental health conditions as dangerous, violent or otherwise unpleasant will not be acceptable.
  • Triggering/harmful images: The advice notes that there must be a strong justification to include harmful images (such as an awareness campaign). The context of the ad is going to be key here, for example a trailer for a horror film that is not overly threatening is likely to be acceptable. However, unnecessary or out of context usage of threatening imagery or depictions/references to self-harm or suicide will not be permitted.
  • Medical claims: There are already strict rules on medical claims and any claim in this space must be able to be substantiated. The advice reminds advertisers that some medical conditions are so serious that they can only be diagnosed, treated or advised on by a qualified medical professional.
  • Suicide: The advice notes that extreme care must be taken with ads that contain references to Suicide. Unless there is a strong justification for its inclusion the inclusion of suicidal imagery or the trivialisation/glamorisation of suicide in an ad are very likely to cause serious harm. Sensitive references aimed at promoting awareness of charities may be acceptable.

In addition to the above, the issue of body image and the potential harm that can be caused in relation to body image will potentially have new specific restrictions as CAP and BCAP are also currently considering whether “specific restrictions should be introduced to mitigate any harms that are not already and adequately addressed by current rules”.

Why is this important?
Mental health is at the forefront of societal importance. Consumers care if advertisements are not responsible and will not hesitate to complain if they take issue with what is being depicted.

Any practical tips?
Extreme care must be taken when depicting any scenes or images which involve scenarios relating to mental health conditions. Not all of these are obvious - for example, gaming ads showing forms of addition may fall into this category (eg which depict certain types of obsessive behaviour). And it is quite easy to see why the presentation of body images and even the use of social media filters may well become the next area of regulatory focus, given the potentially damaging impact this may have on consumers’ mental health.


Explore all the key legal developments for the modern commercial lawyer across data, digital, consumer and advertising in the full edition of Snapshots for Autumn 2021.

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