Advertising typically presents an attempt at getting people to think, feel, or behave in a very particular way. Focus groups, market research organizations, and consumer psychologists operate with an explicit goal of figuring out how to make products and services appealing, frequently invoking an emotional response. This may mean creating a need or desire where neither was present, or getting people to ignore their own needs and desires and buy a product. The popular TV series Mad Men dramatizes this industry, depicting ad executives’ easy willingness to find new ways of promoting and selling cigarettes, even after they were discovered to cause cancer.
For psychologists, most advertising used to be considered unethical, and it still presents a dilemma for a psychotherapist who wants to work and maintain a practice. People seeking a therapist may be particularly vulnerable because they need help—and sometimes desperately so. If a therapist uses certain forms of self-promotion to convince prospective patients to choose him over others, he can be taking a position at odds with the actual work he needs to be doing, some of which involves helping people learn to listen to and trust themselves.
What can a therapist claim in an advertisement? Any promise, or implication of a promise, to help or cure is misleading because it is impossible to make a prediction without first getting to know the person in question. Testimonials and success stories are similarly misleading, because by its nature psychotherapy is highly individualized. Proclamations of success cannot be generalized. Additionally, the very meaning of success differs from person to person, and within any given context. Beyond this, a therapist who solicits testimonials from his or her patients may be exercising undue influence because of their relationship.
Other issues commonly presented in advertisements relate to claims about different therapeutic approaches. Claims that one approach is better than another seem fine if they are clearly presented as opinion, or as based on personal observations. Describing an approach such as CBT as “evidence-based” seems to imply that it is proven to be a superior treatment, and that treatments that do not include the phrase “evidence-based” are therefore less effective. However, there is evidence for the efficacy of many types of therapy; using the buzzword “evidence-based” may not really mean anything in terms of efficacy. Therapy is certainly not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, even within very broad categories like phobia or depression or anxiety.
Eye-catching advertising may say little about a therapist or his approach. Although it may sound full of possibility, offering ‘whatever the customer wants’ can be a problem as well. Therapists tend to become most skilled in an approach that is consistent with how they understand human nature. Offering a potpourri of approaches may seem appealing, but they may not be well thought-through by the therapist. Different approaches can be based on contradictory assumptions for explaining and addressing emotions and behavior, and it may be hard to offer multiple approaches while maintaining a grounded posture—which is very important for a patient to experience from his or her therapist.
Of course, a therapist must be visible if he is to work. It’s also important for prospective patients to have some sense of a potential therapist, and in this way advertising can be beneficial. A therapist’s description of how he works can be important and helpful, even if it just offers a starting point for the patient to see who clicks, and for getting a sense of the potential connection. The nature of the connection may be the most important factor in successful therapy, and this is impossible to know without meeting in person. Perhaps the most reasonable thing a therapist can do is to state clearly how he thinks about therapy, how he thinks about emotional problems, and what his training and experience have been. To the degree that advertising and marketing are about increasing visibility, it can be beneficial to a prospective patient. Making oneself visible as a psychotherapist is ideally a process of attraction and not promotion.