The UK supermarket chains Asda and Tesco found themselves subject to much criticism this week following advertisements on their websites offering Halloween costume for sale.
In the case of Asda, buyers were offered a horror mask, fake blood on clothing and a plastic meat cleaver, accompanied by a photograph to illustrate the product. It was described as a ‘zombie fancy dress costume’ on the internet link to the webpage. If that description had been kept perhaps few people would have heard of it, except for some children who would have bought one and had some fun scaring their friends on Halloween. However, once the page was accessed the ‘zombie’ had become a ‘mental patient’, with the product details reading: ‘Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume…. it’s a terrifying Halloween option’. Tesco offered an orange boiler suit emblazoned on the back with ‘Psycho ward’, with a plastic jaw restraint and the chance to buy a machete to ‘complete the look’.
Both stores came under attack from many campaigners who used social media to accuse them of promoting unhelpful stereotypes around mental illness and dangerousness, in the process increasing the stigma and fear that can blight the lives of many people suffering from mental-health problems. Those voicing their outrage included some high-profile sufferers of mental ill-health. Alastair Campbell, the former New Labour director of communications, who has written about his mental problems, tweeted: ‘Look what Asda’s selling… what possesses these people?’ Stan Collymore, a former footballer who has had several episodes of depression, also criticised the use of such a ‘stereotype’, tweeting: ‘Do you actually realise how many people are hanging themselves because of being frightened of the stigma?’
Mental-health charities also joined the criticism. Rethink, for example, tweeted that it was ‘stunned’, while Sue Baker of Mind told BBC Radio 5 that the worst thing about the costume was that it reinforced outdated stigma-causing stereotypes about people with mental-health problems, in particular ‘the assumption that we’re going to be dangerous, knife-wielding maniacs and that is simply not the case’. My own Twitter account has had posts and retweets from a variety of service users, professionals and campaign groups almost exclusively expressing outrage over the supermarkets’ behaviour. In response to such criticism, both stores have withdrawn the product from sale, offered apologies, and Asda has announced that it is to make ‘a very sizeable donation’ to Mind.
Now, in my opinion, the description of the outfit as that of a mental patient was insensitive and was bound to upset some people. The companies could have saved themselves some criticism if they had stuck with the zombie tag. Nevertheless, the outraged response to the costume is not only blowing the whole thing out of proportion, it also has some extremely concerning aspects to it.