For sufferers, OCD is no laughing matter. So why are some brands still turning it into a joke? Kyrani Notaras, senior data planner, examines the negative impact of retailers who trivialise mental health issues.
Misusing mental health terms is nothing new. Something outrageous is ‘mental’. Extreme weather is ‘bipolar’. Trump is a ‘psychopath’ (possibly accurate). Even outdated terms like ‘bedlam’ and ‘lunatic’ endure. But one diagnosis has become so colloquial, it is occasionally exploited to sell stuff. Surely we can expect more from brands, and individuals come to that?
Last Christmas, boohoo.com advertised pyjamas featuring a play on OCD – Obsessive Christmas Disorder. Meanwhile, TK Maxx were selling jars with the same slogan, the staleness of which is most evident in both brands’ use of Rudolph’s red nose doubling as the ‘O’. The joke is seemingly perennial with Obsessive Coffee Disorder mugs for sale on Amazon, and even a high-end chocolaterie in New York using the initialism. You get the idea.
OCD sufferers and advocacy groups called for the items to be removed from sale, claiming they trivialised OCD, promoted misconceptions and lead to greater misunderstanding. They could even have a negative impact on sufferers’ health, delaying diagnosis and treatment.
Using OCD as an adjective has a minimising quality, implying personal preference rather than suffering. Research suggests trivialisation (of illness) can be perceived as stigma and a recent study from Aviva found one in three young adults (boohoo.com’s core market) are uncomfortable talking about a mental health problem, compared with 27% of all adults. It is well established that people are less likely to seek help if they feel their condition is stigmatised, and mental illness tends to be more so than physical illness (an arbitrary distinction). It is a given that physical illness would never be used in this way, but we’d also never accept a product witticism based on anorexia or depression, so why is OCD fair game?
OCD is a spectrum anxiety disorder marked by repetitive thoughts or fears, and compulsions to act in certain ways to keep the anxiety those thoughts or fears at bay. It is time and energy consuming. It is not all neat rooms and clean hands. Very often, it is invisible and it can be terribly isolating. OCD is comorbid with other anxiety disorders, including depression, eating disorders and more, all of which are typically secondary disorders, meaning OCD causes them. It’s debilitating, not quirky.
Now, some OCD sufferers were amused by the PJs – and good for them. Unfortunately, anecdote ≠ data and while pleas from upset OCD sufferers are admittedly also anecdotal, their position is supported with data and worthy of amplification. Eventually, TK Maxx and boohoo.com capitulated and discontinued the lines (unlike Target, which in 2015 responded to complaints about their OCD Christmas lines with an apology for “any discomfort” but continued to stock the lines anyway).
Predictably, a backlash ensued - the ever-empathetic Daily Mail led their headline with “Has everyone lost their sense of humour?” and anti-PC brigadiers weighed in. One American tweeted “Democratic Socialist’s force Online retailer to remove Christmas ‘Obsessive Christmas Disorder’ pajamas (sic) following their Inability to Laugh at Non-State Approved Humor (sic)” obviously tongue-in-cheek but still, a little hysterical. Others claimed it was part of the war on Christmas (what?) but mostly the message was “stop being sensitive”. Terms like “identity politics” and “snowflake” (not the kind on the pyjama pants) were bandied about, making no distinction between offense and hurt or indeed political correctness and common decency.
This all demonstrates some enduring lack of understanding of mental illness, as does the fact these products made it through design, production, marketing and sales without objection. So in the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Week and our own inclusivity week last month, I implore you to be that irritating person who corrects others when matters of health are trivialised. And if a client ever suggests making a Christmas joke out of a disorder, be a Grinch about it.