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13 min read

Something To Talk About: Marketing and Mental Health

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” At DECODE, we take this saying to heart. And that starts right here, within the walls of our office.

The marketing and advertising you see on a daily basis can play a big role in how you feel. You may question how you keep getting targeted ads specifically for something you talked about to your friends. Or you may realize you don’t see anyone who looks like you in a retailer’s marketing. Or maybe you’ve just gone through a big life event, and can’t get rid of endless emails, despite unsubscribing. All of these things can change how you feel about yourself and the world around you.

As an agency that is focused on wellness, we want to break the mold — to be the ones who value people’s time and privacy above all else. The bottom line is that mental health — for our employees, clients, as well as the people we advertise to — matters to us. This Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to start the conversation internally by asking our team about current marketing practices and how they influence wellness and mental health.

Here’s what we had to say:

What are some ethical business practices that have stood out to you? (Ex., Ogilvy UK no longer working with influencers who use filters, Country Crock not running ads during dinner time.)

“I've always been a huge fan of Nike's constant decision to stand for social issues. I think we have fully shifted into an era of companies taking stances and speaking on what they believe in, and I greatly appreciate companies that do.”

“Chick-fil-a — love to see an organization that remains true to their core values/purpose, even when it doesn't make ‘business sense’ or it's even possibly ridiculed.”

“TOMS, still to this day, is a wonderful company.”

“Aerie swimsuit models having stretch marks, Old Navy not having “plus size” clothing (they just added more sizes to their normal clothes).”

Where is the balance between reaching our audience and respecting their limits? (Ex., limiting follow-up emails, limiting number of ads)

“I can't specify a balance, but I will say that a balance can be found through testing. Seeing the middle point between where our audience starts and stops responding is something accomplished through trial and error.”

“I think it lies in the opt-out. Always giving people the option to ‘step away.’ I also think the responsibility to make this call lies in the strategy/research. What's appropriate for your audience, what do they want to receive, how do they want to receive it, etc. Putting the work in on the front end to actually address or meet a need rather than simply casting a wide, obnoxious net.”

“Advertisements that pop up in places that are not inconvenient to what the customer was originally doing. (i.e., ads that pop up between Instagram stories are easy to swipe out of the way)”

“I think it's about reaching your audience in a conservative way that does not inconvenience them. Put yourself in their shoes. Ask, ‘Would this message/ad/email annoy me if I received it?’” 

How do you think modern consumer expectations have changed when it has come to privacy, wellness, and how brands approach the topic?

“I think the modern consumer is more okay with targeted advertising. A consensus among some in the office is that we really appreciate these ads giving us specifically what we want and not having to search for things.”

“I think the gleefully unaware consumer has recently realized truly how little privacy they are given by being an internet user, and are starting to push back greatly. This ideal of 'privacy' is something consumers are desperate for, despite not really knowing what internet privacy even looks like. I think it funnels into my bigger definition of consumer wellness, which is truly based on finding a balance. Work-life, internet-life, social media-life, etc.; everything is falling into the question of, 'How do I balance my mental health/life/soul with being interconnected almost constantly?' Brands are approaching this by providing a sense of a trade-off, to the tune of ‘Hey, you're online, you're looking for products, here's how our product specifically can lead you to this balance.’”

“Consumers expect their privacy to be respected and for brands to give them information about conditions/wellness freely.”

“I think privacy is out the window — and people know and accept it. The need for convenience and instant gratification has superseded the long-term value of privacy… but no one seems to care, blinded to the possible negatives by likes, comments, and shares. But with this open sharing, coupled with a renewed focus on wellness, comes additional awareness for allllll sorts of things in which people can be educated and find commonality where they may not have before. I think brands doing it well have invested in the value of trust and loyalty that comes from investing in PEOPLE rather than just a one-time sale — ultimately creating value-based, long-term relationships.”

“Most consumers expect complete transparency in order to gain their trust, as well as the advertisement ball being in THEIR court (i.e., brands consumers choose to be advertised)”

“Brands are more blunt and straightforward when discussing it. There isn't much sugar coating anymore because things hit just as hard when you tell it how it is.”

How can we continually prioritize our audience's wellness?

“We can prioritize our audience's wellness by prioritizing our own wellness. Rather than writing an email, post, etc., solely with numbers in mind, we need to consider the impact this can have on a single individual. We need to be asking ourselves the same questions we would want someone else to ask before providing us an ad, such as, ‘Could this impact someone other than myself?’ ‘Could this trigger a negative response in someone,’ etc.”

“Making sure to respect fatigue.”

“Listening. And then resourcing based on what we hear/identify what's important.”

“Respecting their personal space (not bombarding them with ads) and leading by example ethically.”

“Relatability, compassion, inclusion.”

As marketers and advertisers, we see how the sausage is made. What is one thing in the industry that YOU would like to see change, for the benefit of your and others' mental health? 

“I am a firm believer in being the change you want to see in the world, and I think DECODE is doing a great job of doing that by providing a great degree of flexibility to understand and nurture your own mental health. From WFH to wellness stipends to daily wellness times, I think everyone has the opportunity to care for themselves in their own unique way, and I would like to see a greater adoption of that throughout the industry. I think it'll lead to much more 'human' and holistic marketing that can really do a lot of good in the world.”

“More understanding of the individual within the industry and as consumers.”

“Doing things in a performative way to ‘show others’ — make it personal and have more authenticity. Don't care who likes it or doesn't, and find what works for you. And then carry this over into the way we connect with our audiences.”

“LET PEOPLE KNOW THEIR DATA IS BEING USED. Be honest about it. Instead of putting it in the fine print in the terms and conditions, just tell people and let them decide how to proceed. It feels like such a crossed boundary.”

“More diversity in the influencers companies choose to market their product.”

Starting the conversation is important; as you can see from the opinions above, we don’t always agree (especially about targeted ads). But when we share these thoughts with a common goal — doing right by people — we’re able to develop real-world actions that can make a difference.


While there are some topics that require more insight, more technology, and more time to implement, there are others you can work on right now. Here are three ways you can advertise more responsibly today:

1. Ensure you’re getting opt-ins, confirming communication preferences, and allowing ease with opt-outs.

2. Look at the imagery your organization is sharing and understand if it is reflective of all beauty standards and does not overly rely on touch-ups.

3. Consider the frequency of your messaging — how often users are exposed to your ads, receive emails, etc. Avoid overloading anyone with how often they’re hearing from you.

Mental health is not a monolith, and it may look a certain way to some people and differently to others. Continue having the conversation with both your team and your audience so you can always provide what the people in your world need. As for us, we’re always up for a chat. Contact us if you’d like to talk more about ethical marketing practices and how we can help bring these to life for you.