Is mental health in marketing campaigns taking advantage of a social issue? Or simply raising awareness?

May 16th, 2023

Mental health is a topic that the majority of the population can not only relate to, but quite often is one they hold close to their heart. No one can refute that raising awareness of mental health, and encouraging people to open up and talk about their concerns and troubles is a fundamentally important social requirement. Mental Health awareness week (15th – 21st May 2023) has rolled back around – and is annually a major contributor for starting conversations on these topics, and reminding people of the avenues they can turn to to give them that extra bit of support when times get tough.

Usually, during this time, we see a spike in brands talking about mental health, or running marketing campaigns where the topic of mental health is central to the campaign. On the surface, this seems to be a positive step towards raising awareness on the topic – particularly in an era where the demand for mental health services is rising. As well as brands talking about mental health being important from a social responsibility standpoint, 71% of the Gen-Z audience like to see brands using mental health within their marketing and messaging. Oftentimes, however, brands will experience backlash for using mental health in their marketing campaigns.

Sometimes when brands use mental health in their marketing campaigns, it can be seen as a way of using social issues to promote their products, and trivialising the complexity of mental health issues. It is usually during the annual awareness days that we see brands promoting the topic of mental health, and then for the remainder of the year there is radio silence on the subject; this is not exclusive to mental health however, marketing campaigns that focus on topics such as LGBTQ+ pride, black history month, or international women’s day, during their associated awareness days have received similar backlash. When done with little thought, or executed poorly, using mental health (& other social issues) in marketing campaigns can be perceived as a ‘tick box’ exercise for a brand – rather than a genuine attempt to generate awareness on the issue with the welfare of customers (& employees) at the forefront of their intentions.

Considering the above, it is vital for brands to be able to openly discuss social issues in their marketing campaigns without risking backlash or potentially trivialising complex social issues. With a focus on mental health, let’s take a deep dive into past marketing campaigns that have centred around this topic and evaluate why some campaigns have received backlash, while others have succeeded in using their reach and influence to help drive change.

Burger King’s “Real Meals” Campaign

In 2019 the popular fast food chain Burger King, in partnership with Mental Health America, launched a limited time campaign called the “Real Meals” campaign. A play on McDonald’s “Happy Meals” – the “Real Meals” campaign consisted of 5 different meal deals (the Pissed Meal, Blue Meal, Salty Meal, YAAAS Meal and DGAF Meal), and sported the tagline “not everyone can be happy all the time, and that’s okay”. Burger King stated that the intention behind the campaign was to address the needs of those living with a mental illness, and promote the overall mental health of Americans by encouraging the customers to embrace how they feel in a way that they ‘haven’t been able to before’.

The campaign received backlash across social media, with many people criticising the company for ‘downplaying’ mental health, and using the topic to draw a profit. Many suggested that it was watering down the idea of mental health, and brushing off the seriousness of the topic with a “everyone feels sad sometimes – here’s a burger to make you feel better” sentiment.


“Every Mind Matters” with the Royal family

Public Health England, in partnership with the NHS, teamed up with the Royal family to support the government’s Every Mind Matters campaign. The campaign encouraged people to take a short survey about their mental health, and then gave advice on how to cope with struggles, based on their survey responses. The then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (now the Prince and Princess of Wales), and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were featured in the video promoting the campaign, where they discussed the feelings of life getting on top of you, and how this might translate into feeling low, anxious or stressed.

The initiative quickly received backlash, centring around the concerns for the people suffering with chronic mental health issues who have been stuck on lengthy NHS waiting lists for therapy and support. The discussions went deeper into debates about the underfunding of the NHS, and comparing the treatment of mental health issues by the NHS to other medical concerns that are often taken far more seriously.

SunnyD’s “Feelings of Hopelessness”

SunnyD received backlash when their Twitter account tweeted saying “I can’t do this anymore”. Unlike the other outlined examples, the intent behind this tweet was unknown, but it is assumed it was an attempt to be relatable, and open up discussions about feelings of hopelessness. The tweet gained 134.5k retweets and 314.5k likes

The company received backlash for seemingly using the guise of a mental health crisis to draw attention and increase their social media presence. Other brands quickly jumped on this thread – despite potentially risking bad publicity for doing so; while some reached out to the brand with messages of support or concern, others replied in jest, or in such a way to promote themselves off the back of this – escalating the problem of using mental health as a shallow form of self promotion.


Where did they go wrong?

The problem with the above mental health centric campaigns is that they do not demonstrate their dedication to tackling mental health as a genuine, ongoing priority – and instead seem to be a shallow attempt to profit from a social issue at a time when the topic is being talked about frequently in the media. This sentiment is likely to be felt, regardless of the companies intentions, without further action to address or support the mental health of their patrons.

Nike’s “In My Feels” Air Max 270

Another famous campaign centred around mental health from 2019 was Nike’s In My Feels Air Max 270; they launched a trainer, designed by a psychotherapist and mental health advocate, from which proceeds were donated to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Unlike the above two campaigns, reactions to the ‘In My Feels’ campaign were predominantly positive. The reason Nike’s campaign received less backlash than the above is likely to do with the action taken for positive change during the campaign; Nike not only used their platform to raise awareness of mental health, but also made a financial contribution (through the proceeds of the product) to a charity who are well known for making a positive change in this area.

As a further note, Nike have built up a reputation for themselves as a strong advocate for mental health; they often focus on fitness as a way to improve mental health by both increasing self-esteem and cognitive function. Over the years they have launched several campaigns that not only raise awareness, but take actions on the topic, and attempt to provide mental health support for their customers. Two of the more memorable campaigns are outlined below:

  • Mind SETS Campaign: based on the concept that exercise and movement has a positive impact on your mental health, Nike have built a platform to leverage the healing power of movement. The uplifting programme focuses on how you feel following the completion of ‘movement’ or ‘exercise’ rather than what you have achieved.
  • Mind your Mind Campaign: tackling the issue of depression in young girls, Nike launched a section on the Nike Training App where young girls can train their mind through relaxation and mindfulness exercises, as well as giving them the opportunity to ask for help from professionals through the app, and the chance to connect and train with other like-minded girls.

Logic’s suicide awareness song

In 2017, the rapper Logic released a song (featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid) titled “1-800-273-8255”; this is the phone number for the American National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The heartfelt lyrics in the song tell the story of someone in a dark place who is contemplating suicide, but as the song continues it becomes a positive series of metaphors that encourage listeners to remain strong, reach out for support, and lists reasons to live and be happy.

Alongside a flurry of positive comments from fans about how the song touched them, or their loved ones personally – with many even suggesting the song saved their life, statistics showed a 7% increase in calls to the lifeline, and a 5% drop in the number of suicides in the months following the songs release. The following year, after performing the song at the Grammy’s, the song garnered even more positive attention; research by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that there were an additional 9,915 calls to the lifeline following this performance, as well as further evidence to suggest a reduction in US suicides. Even now, several years after the song was released, it is still discussed in relation to the prevention of suicide – with news articles discussing the impact of the song as late as November 2022 (5+ years after initial release!!!).

What did they do differently that changed the public perspective?

The main difference between the above two campaigns, and the others that received backlash, is the action taken during and after the campaigns to promote social change. While the first three discussed campaigns were probably done with good intentions, there seemed to be no real attempt behind them to actually provide ongoing support, or awareness for those struggling with mental health [with the exception of the Every Mind Matters campaign, where the attempt was made, but it was perceived to be not trying hard enough to encourage real social change]. As the famous saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

A further note is the difference in language behind the way mental health is talked about. In the first three examples, mental health issues are spoken about in a watered down fashion – making notions such as “we all have a bad day sometimes”, “we all feel sad/stressed/anxious, sometimes”. In contrast, the second two examples seem to capture the seriousness of chronic mental health issues in the language they use, and the sentiment behind it.

For the above reasons, the final two campaigns were great examples of ways brands can use their platform and following to raise awareness and take action on a social issue.

Not necessarily – the problem is not using mental health in your marketing campaign, it is the intentions behind it, and the way in which it is executed that entices backlash. From a social responsibility standpoint, it is important that your brand is seen openly discussing mental health – and using your platform and following to encourage social change is important. In order to achieve this without risking backlash, try thinking about the following before implementing your campaign:

What positive social change will this campaign provide? This question rolls back around to the intentions behind your campaign – is there an element of raising funds for charity? Is your campaign encouraging people to seek support, or giving them an avenue to support themselves? You need to consider the impact of your campaign, beyond the campaign itself.

Consider the messaging and language used. Mental health is a serious issue, and it should be talked about, and treated as such. Consider the messaging you are using, can it be construed as watering down or trivialising the issue? If yes, you might need to rethink the message you are trying to get across, and how this might impact the outcome of your campaign.

Do you as a company advocate for mental health all year round? Or just when the topic is talked about? It is important to establish yourself as a company that advocates for the mental health of your employees and customers. A brand that showcases their commitment to mental health, and has it embedded as one of their core values through the efforts they make to support both employees and customers, is one that is less likely to receive backlash when they do use mental health in their marketing – as they are likely to be taken much more seriously than those brands doing a singular annual campaign during the awareness days.

As an example for this, at Click Consult we have several benefits for our employees to support their health and wellbeing, and provide support from both the leadership team and their colleagues, such as:

  • Monthly funded company social activities: Each month at Click we put aside some hours to enjoy eachothers company as a team. This gives us some time to shake off the work brain, and talk to our colleagues about our personal lives, hobbies, or whatever is trending on Netflix that week. Our monthly socials are always a hit, and help build friendships, and support networks within the workplace – allowing for a friendly and collaborative atmosphere both inside and outside of working hours.
  • Mental health support and employee helpline: We value the mental health of our employees, and have a helpline to provide them with ongoing mental health support whenever it might be needed.
  • Dedicated ‘me time’ per year for personal appointments: No need to stress about taking time off, or making back the hours if you need to attend personal appointments!
  • Training and development opportunities: We want to encourage our employees to strive to be their best selves, and so provide them with training and development opportunities throughout their time at Click. Not only does this provide our employees with the tools to attain new skills, but it also ensures our employees are continuously building on their expertise; making sure we can provide our clients with a team of digital marketing professionals that are at the top of their game.

So before you see an awareness day roll around, and think you need to quickly come up with a campaign that aligns with the topic – stop and think about the intent behind the campaign before you push anything out. If you are simply creating a mental health campaign purely because everyone else is, or because the topic is likely to be trending – then maybe you are not doing it for the right reasons, and the campaign may do more harm than good. If you are genuinely wanting to use your platform and reach to talk about mental health because it is what you value as a company, then take the time to think about it and consider the above on action over words, messaging, and becoming a mental health advocate.

When all the above is considered, you will be ready to launch your mental health campaign, start enacting positive social change, and taking steps towards making the world a mentally healthier place.

If you or someone you know if struggling with your mental health, please reach out for support:

  • Samaritans: to talk about anything that is upsetting you, 0808 164 0123 (7pm–11pm every day).
  • SANEline: if you, or someone you are supporting, is experiencing a mental health problem, SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day).
  • National suicide prevention helpline UK: if you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, 0800 689 5652 (6pm–3:30am every day).
  • CALM: offer both a phone number, and webchat service (5pm – midnight), for those struggling, 0800 58 58 58
  • SHOUT: offers a 24/7 texting service if you would rather not talk, text SHOUT to 85258
  • A list of international helplines can be found here, for those outside of the UK.

Need advice on marketing campaigns?

lets chat!
Facebook Twitter Instagram Linkedin Youtube