New match in town: Indian advertising and mental health awareness

From being a taboo topic to being at the centre of discussion in the pandemic era, mental health issues are being seen in a new light by the advertising world, said experts

e4m by Mansi Sharma
Published: Jul 8, 2021 8:47 AM  | 7 min read
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What remains hushed in society for long periods often starts peaking its head out through the lens of media and popular culture. And advertising has been a participant in the process of breaking taboos around several topics for ages: be it menstrual health, gender equity, or minority rights. However, one topic that remained out of the focus even for the advertising industry for a long time, has been mental health. India, one of the most depressed countries in the world, doesn’t only have a dilapidated medical scenario to deal with mental health-related issues, but the spectrum of illness remained missing from the advertising world for the longest time. However, the past few years have witnessed some laudable strides from both the brands and the agencies to talk about the issue openly. But what influenced this move and is it the best the industry could pull off? Exchange4media finds out:  

A Reflection of Society

Advertising is essentially what mirrors the society; picks up on the feelings of the customers and trends that define the purchase habits for any individual to make brand pitches one can’t ignore. Mental health remained a taboo topic in society, and, naturally, there were not any attempts made by the advertising industry to touch upon the topic. 

Isobar India National Creative Director Aalap Desai explains, “I don’t remember (seeing) many mental health and well-being campaigns (while growing up). The sensitivity around the topic was non-existent. People were aware of others behaving differently and obviously noticed things, but they did not have names for their behaviour or the tools to recognize them. There was also so much taboo around accepting the problems and treating them that most people just avoided talking about them and suffered silently. This made it worse.” 

What further pushed the silence, was probably the ad world’s internal culture, which has been touted to be toxic by many insiders. 

Desai adds, “Now that we are talking about Indian advertising, let’s also talk about the problems that existed inside Indian advertising. When I started, there were many toxic ways of working that had been carried on for years and were unshakable. Advertising glorified overworking to unbelievable levels, and that was the tradition that was passed on irrespective of the people and their mental bandwidths. That led to some people showing signs of cracking under the pressure. Things could not be fixed immediately, but I’m happy to say that that culture has changed for good, today.”

The Impact of Other Media 

Another big factor, which pushed the brands to take up mental health as a cause to present, has been how other media started dealing with the topic. The past few years, on the back of social media and other pop culture influences, really panned the spotlight on the issue. 

FoxyMoron Founding Partner Pratik Gupta says, “If we look at how other media influenced advertising, Bollywood certainly has played a big role in that. So, the 70s & 80s were about ‘angry young men’, in the 90s family took the center stage, and the 2000s were all about love & romance. It has only been in the last ten years that Indian society has really opened up conversations around mental health. And that’s really when the topic became contextually relevant for Indian advertising too.” 

Starcom CCO Rajiv Gopinath continues reflects, “Commercial Films like Taare Zameen Par (2007), My Name is Khan (2010), Barfi (2012), Heroine (2012), Tamasha (2015), Dear Zindagi (2016), Phobia (2016), Judgementall Hai Kya (2019), and Chichhore (2019) set the buck moving. Additionally, other pop-culture contents - short films, standup, spoken word pieces, videos from channels like Filtercopy/Girliyapa, IGTV/LIVE sessions with experts by brands and influencers as well as many series that have mental health issues (especially depression and anxiety) as a part of sub-plot, etc. have played a crucial role in bringing the conversations to the forefront.” 

Desai adds, “With the rise of social media, consumers became trigger happy in their reactions, and their responses started being more visible and getting more recognition. Brands started getting affected by “retweets” and “likes”, and they evolved to a point where they had to be sensitive to mental issues and how they react and address them. In addition to films and shows that spoke about mental well-being and other issues, this brought things to the surface. The taboo around the topics broke, and it was OK now to acknowledge them and, more importantly, treat them. As soon as topics became widely discussed, they became discussed in advertising too.” 

What further propelled this conversation around mental health was big celebrities like Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Honey Singh, Virat Kohli, Abhinav Bindra, Harmanpreet Kaur openly discussing their mental healths in public forums. 

Mullen Lintas Chief Creative Officer Garima Khandelwal rightfully adds, “We are living now at the cusp of many new realities that today’s generation is dealing with. Loneliness inspires never before connectivity, only material abundance, social media scrutiny and so on which will carve newer conversations for mental well being. Today, everyone can be called a victim. And each of us can be clustered as a target, working mothers. students. professionals, even children are coping and brands target a particular section depending on their relevance to that audience. While everyone tries to say it by showing a side that could be surprising, it somehow follows a pattern.” 

The Pandemic Effect

What finally culminated as the biggest push for these discussions in the advertising world was the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought the focus on mental well being for the society at large. 

Gopinath shares, “Based on Talkwalker and Google Search data for the past year - the conversations around stress, depression, anxiety, and mental health have spiked. COVID-induced lockdown, the pandemic, future (job/ education/ health) uncertainty are all causes for the same.” 

Still Far From Perfection

While the industry is happy that the conversations have begun and more & more brands are getting comfortable with the idea of talking about mental health in their campaigns, there is still a long way to go for the industry to nail it perfectly. 

Gopinath quips, “What we have seen is that even the relevant brands in India have just dipped their toes and are testing the waters. But they should have more consistent messaging. The campaigns we have been seeing for the past few years are undoubtedly creative but they are not always dealing with the subject in the right empathetic manner.”

Desai further elaborates, “Sometimes some brands have ended up overdoing the empathy in their ads. That, in turn, makes the communication look forced and fake. This particular challenge appears when the people making the campaign try to project their version and understand the challenge into the ad and over-engineer it.

“The issue at hand is a discussion, not a sales pitch. It is delicate, and I feel we should make it appear most delicately without patronizing people. That’s true creativity in such advertising. Also, if you are talking about the problem, stick to talking about it without plugging the product in forcefully.”

Khandelwal quips, “The viral video by the little Kashmiri girl that stressed about the burden of school curriculum; wish a brand had done something that simple and innocent.” 

Gupta has one more concern regarding the extensive media coverage the mental health issues are getting these days. “I am really glad that we are discussing such topics in our content, but my only concern is that the matter shouldn’t get trivialised by such exposure. Like, how rape has become a word that people are using as a subject of a joke now! We have to be very careful about how we treat the subject in our messaging and be more vocal about the whole spectrum of issues, the broad topic of mental health and well-being entails. It must be ensured that it doesn’t lose its seriousness.”

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