Advertising and Mental Health – Why Ads Feed My Insecurities

In recent times, social media has come in for a barrage of criticism, not just because of privacy issues but also in relation to its negative impact on mental health. Pretty pictures of Facebook friends enjoying holidays or having a time much better than I could ever have, do, indeed, make me feel like crap. But what about advertising and mental health?

Don’t all the shiny happy people I see on ads wreck my self-esteem too? Do I not, consciously or unconsciously, come away feeling that I’m simply not good enough? Not successful enough? Not rich enough? Not beautiful enough? So, where does that leave me? I tell you precisely where; in a place where I feel inadequate, unworthy, and unlovable. 

No, I could definitely never be cool like that! And rich! And happy!

Truth is, I can’t get away from the flood of images portraying people much better than me. But what I can do is, distance myself from the fakery and take back control. I can make sure that ads don’t feed my insecurities, leaving me feeling like crap. And this is what this article is about. 

How Freud’s Nephew Changed Advertising Forever

To delve deeper into the topic, advertising and mental health, I did a little research on the history of advertising. Much to my surprise, I discovered that Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, changed the nature of advertising to its very core. 

Whereas beforehand, companies advertised products for their durability, quality, and appeal, Bernays, using psychological tools, began portraying products as a means to improve your image. Most famously, he made smoking socially attractive, even though up until then, it had been frowned upon.  This is precisely where advertising and mental health collide. 

After working with the US Woodrow Wilson government to convince Americans about the necessity to get involved in World War I, Bernays worked with numerous American companies, helping them to develop clever advertising strategies. To Bernays, PR is a necessity and a means of mass manipulation:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Edward Bernays

Bernays’ advertising strategies proved a huge success. However, he later discovered that his mass manipulation techniques were used by the Nazis to stir up hatred against the Jews. As a result, the Roosevelt Administration banned him from any leadership role during World War II. 

Still, to this very day, advertisers employ many of Bernays’ clever tactics. Using our fear or insecurities to drive consumerism is ultimately what drives many advertising campaigns. 

Exploiting Your Insecurities to Sell and Make Money

So, now that I know that advertisers feed my insecurities to make money, let’s look at the relationship between advertising and mental health.

Feeding Existing Insecurities and Creating More

Let’s take an ad for whitening toothpaste. Whenever I see one, I know my teeth are nowhere near as white. And, although I know that colour filters are at work, I still come away thinking that I’ve got ugly. at best, yellow, teeth. This leaves me with two options. Either I spend a fortune on getting my teeth whitened or I buy the toothpaste advertised.

Failure to do so will leave me convinced of the unsightliness of my teeth. The next time I meet a friend, I’ll smile a little less for fear of exposing my yellow teeth.

Now, I may have been a little insecure about my teeth before seeing the ad countless times but the truth is, now, I am convinced that my teeth and myself should not see the light of day. And this is just one ad. Imagine the impact all the ads I see every day have on my mental health?

Ads Create Unattainable Self-Images

I haven’t a hope of ever looking as good or being as rich and successful as the shiny happy people. So, when it comes to advertising and mental health I have to make a conscious effort to distance myself from the unattainable self-image I am supposed to achieve. 

Ads Pitch Me Against Other People

Because images of the perfect person living the perfect life can dominate my image consciousness, it also affects how I perceive other people.

I may rejoice if a friend comes close to reaching that perfection. Or, it might make me happy to see that someone else appears even further remote from the perfect image than I am. Either way, these subconscious ideas of perfection taint the way I look at other people.

Advertising and Mental Health – Time to Take a Step Back

If I want to do something positive for my mental health, I need to take a step back.

First, I need to remind myself that the perfection portrayed is fake.

Shiny, happy people I am supposed to look like.

Second, I have to remember that advertisers only have one motive. They want to drive sales and don’t care how their ads leave me feeling.

Third, I can look after my mental health by distancing myself from this fake perfection.

Lastly, I need to be proud of my own beauty, yellow teeth included. And when I see someone, I need to focus on their very own unique beauty. 

Most Ads Are Bad For My Mental Health – Let’s Vote with Our Wallets

One sure way of bringing about a change in today’s advertising culture is to use our power as consumers. Choose brands that advertise in a mental health-friendly manner and ditch those that don’t.


The manipulation of the American mind: Edward Bernays and the birth of public relations

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