August 15, 2012

Who would have ever thought that French cheese would stigmatize people living with mental illness?

Last week Fromageries Bel, the multinational cheese maker headquartered in Paris, bowed to protests from the French mental health community over a small toy inkpad that was being given away in packages of Mini Babybel, a small round cheese coated in red wax.

The company’s U.S. subsidiary is Bel Brands USA, which produces Laughing Cow cheese as well as Mini Babybel.

The inkpads featured the term “des vacances de malade mental” (mentally ill holidays), apparently a play on words which the company claimed was intended to mean “extraordinary.” In English or French, I think something was lost in the translation.

The company has apologized and promised to meet next month with leaders of French disability organizations to talk about ways to fight discrimination—after everyone returns from vacation, I’m sure.

The story caught my eye for several reasons.


One, it’s good to keep in mind that the stigma that surrounds mental illness is not limited to the United States. It exists in popular cultures throughout the world. The challenge to overcome it is immense, but at least we are not alone.

The story also demonstrates two basic tactical approaches used in fighting stigma.

The first is protest. The second is dialogue–with the ideal hope being that dialogue can turn into partnership.

Traditionally, movies and television have lead the pack in spreading stigma, but retail products and advertising also have an impact.

Boycotts rarely work per se, but protests in general pack a punch. (With boycotts, you need to mobilize huge numbers of people over a long period of time and make a major financial dent).

No one likes bad publicity. That’s one reason why companies monitor social media carefully and, believe it or not, actually read customer comments submitted through their websites.

In the era of social media, individuals have more power than they realize.

Every little bit helps.

If you see or hear an offensive television or radio commercial, go to the company’s website and Facebook page and let them know. Share your concerns on NAMI’s Facebook page and those of other mental health organizations.

Let the public debate begin.

(Did you watch the commercial linked in above? What did you think?)

Protest may not actually change attitudes. They may only result in a “Gee whiz, we didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings” type apology. Sometimes, there will be no response at all. However, protest may change behavior, quietly, behind the scenes. No business wants to “get into trouble” a second time, if only because it’s too much a headache.

Protest causes people to take notice.

It can lead to dialogue and the best outcome of all is a partnership that emerges out of controversy. Be strong in protest when it’s warranted, but always stay committed to finding common ground.

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