A commercial for ING Direct that asked if consumers are "suffering from RSP" has been pulled after it was criticized for making light of mental illness.
The commercial, which launched earlier this month, was shot in the style of a pharmaceutical ad. Blue-toned images of a man lying listless on the couch and staring into space in his backyard, played over dramatic music and voice-over statements such as "I hadn't been feeling like myself for a while," and "I wasn't sleeping."
The punchline of the commercial is the man's discovery that he has a made-up disease – "RSP" – which is cured with a visit to ING. "I'm eating solid food again," he concludes.
The spot was intended as a spoof of pharmaceutical advertising, and a pitch to Canadians who find investing stressful. But soon after it aired, the ING team began receiving e-mails and noticed conversations in social media objecting to the spot's tone. Representatives from the Canadian Mental Health Association – including national CEO Peter Coleridge – also objected, writing in the comments section of a story on marketingmag.ca about the campaign launch.
Mr. Coleridge wrote about the work that has been done to combat the stigma of mental illness, and cited the statistic that one in five Canadians experience some form of it.
"Many people with mental health problems have indicated that the discrimination, stigma and shame related to the illness is worse than the illness itself. Shame on ING," Mr. Coleridge wrote. "Please recognize the disrespect and discrimination and drop these ads immediately."
On Tuesday, the company did just that, announcing the decision to pull the ads from television in a statement on its corporate Facebook page. (ING was acquired by Bank of Nova Scotia last year, but continues to operate as a separate brand.)
"We were surprised at the sentiment," ING Direct chief executive officer Peter Aceto said in an interview on Wednesday. "But looking at them in the light of the issue, we can see why people would be bothered. It wasn't our intention. The next time we make an ad, it's a learning (experience) … it was a bit of a blind spot."
The company and its Toronto-based ad agency, John St., put the ad through focus group testing before it went to air. No red flags were raised during that process. John St. won the account 18 months ago, but Mr. Aceto said he did not blame the agency for the negative reactions.
And not everyone was offended by the campaign. Feedback on the company's Facebook statement included a number of comments from people who wrote that it was an overreaction to interpret the ad as an attack on those with mental health difficulties.
"I'm affected by those issues, yet I find the ads pretty funny," a commenter named Jamie Hynds wrote.
"I just watched the ad and to me it looked like it was a parody of those ridiculously overdramatic, cheesy pharmaceutical commercials – I didn't get the impression that it was making fun of people with mental illness," another commenter, Amanda Olson-Preece, wrote.
But reacting to the criticism and pulling the ad was an attempt for the brand to build trust, Mr. Aceto said. It is no small decision: A television campaign such as this one represents an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars between production costs and the purchase of television airtime. The company noted that it could take a few days for the spots to be pulled completely.
It is also taking some time for other marketing materials associated with the campaign to be amended. On Wednesday morning, ING was still sending e-mails to customers with the headline, "Fast-acting relief from RSP."
"Every year millions of Canadians suffer from RSP – sleeplessness, cold sweats and stress about their retirement savings," the e-mail reads. "But not you. As someone who already has an ING DIRECT RSP, you know that it doesn't have to be that way."
ING will review another commercial that was intended to run in a few weeks' time. The spot promoting tax-free savings accounts is not the same as the RSP ad, Mr. Aceto said, but it will be examined "in light of this circumstance," and ING will decide whether to proceed with it.
Editor's Note: The online version of this story has been corrected to show that the campaign is not John St.'s first major work with ING.