I first saw the Zoloft Sad Blob shortly after commercials for the antidepressant began airing 20 years ago. This advertisement was different from the heavily parodied antidepressant commercials of yore, with their bizarrely long lists of side effects ranging from constipation to “hot dog fingers.” Instead, Zoloft’s early aughts campaign depicts a black and white circle with downcast eyes and a frown, slowly trudging along as a bluebird trails behind and a dark cloud looms above.
“You know when you just don’t feel right. Now here’s something you may not know,” the voiceover says. “These are symptoms of depression. A serious medical condition affecting over 20 million Americans.” The commercial goes on to explain that while the cause is unknown, “depression may be related to an imbalance of naturally occurring chemicals between nerve cells and the brain.”
By the end of the ad — after the personified circle has ostensibly taken Zoloft — we see the dark cloud dissipate as the bluebird flies overhead.
As a teenager, I had never heard of chemical imbalances or depression, but the Sad Blob broke it down concisely and in a way that helped me understand that mental health was an important part of my overall health. That’s a lot of psychoeducation in 30 seconds, and I was far from the only one affected by the melancholy doodle. Following a second Sad Blob ad and several commercial parodies (including a cameo role on Family Guy), sales for Zoloft peaked in 2004 at $3.36 billion. It also hit during a boom for SSRIs more generally; antidepressant consumption in the U.S. quadrupled between the early 1990s and late 2000s. However, the Sad Blob did more than normalize the use of medication to treat depression and destigmatize treatment. Whether they opted to take Zoloft or not, the Sad Blob gave many people something to point to and say, “That’s exactly how I feel.”
Patricia Celan, a medical doctor and psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, believes the ad significantly raised awareness for clinical depression and the availability of treatment. “Instead of being gossiped about with hushed tones and judgment, the science of depression was explained matter-of-factly in a clear, straightforward commercial,” she says. Laying out data, such as the statistic that depression affects more than 20 million people, further reduced judgment about what is a very common illness. But it was the simplicity of the image that made it so “anyone with depression could easily see themselves as the blob and feel less alone,” Celan explains.
As Celan points out, one of the powerful aspects of the Sad Blob is that it wasn’t a person at all. It can be difficult for some depressed people to be kind to themselves and others — and they may be more likely to muster some empathy for something non-human. This is demonstrated through research on animal therapy and how pets can improve moods and reduce anxiety, and other studies show that cartoons can be more effective at improving the mood of depressed individuals, compared to pictures of people. “By watching a cute sketched blob receive treatment, the intimidating idea of medication became more conceivable to depressed people,” Celan tells me.
As it turns out, that was the intention of the Sad Blob all along — to convey a feeling. “I see artwork like the blob to be a mode of communication,” explains Patrick Smith, the artist and filmmaker who directed and illustrated the commercials. “Art, particularly animated art, is a great language to express ideas and emotions in a way everyone can relate to and understand.”
Smith fell into animation one night in college in 1994 when boredom drove him to attempt to animate an abstract shape, not unlike the Sad Blob. At the behest of his buddy, he slapped a logo on it and mailed a VHS to MTV. Two weeks later, Smith sold his first animation, titled “Swallowface,” a spherical figure that opened up into new faces and finally ended on the iconic MTV logo. That was “literally the very first animation I had ever attempted,” he recalls.
The award-winning spot landed Smith his first studio job working on Beavis and Butthead, where he cut his teeth as an animator in the late 1990s. By the 2000s, Smith had moved his way up to directing another animated series with some very depressive undertones: Daria. The show followed a teenager named Daria Morgendorffer, whose high levels of intelligence and apathy encouraged everyone from redditors to Lena Dunham to diagnose her with clinical depression. But Smith says he didn’t pathologize Daria; instead, he focused on communicating a feeling.
After MTV, Smith found his way into the ad world, working for a now defunct production house. One day, the agency approached him with a concept that involved turning a circular character into “a personification of emotion that moves and interacts within a space, a world and with other critters,” Smith says. And so, the Sad Blob was born. (Despite the commonalities, Smith says Daria didn’t inspire the Sad Blob in any conscious way, beyond the “natural artistic growth and learning from every project I do.”)
Looking back at Sad Blob now, Smith agrees with Celan that it was the simple design that made the animation resonate with so many people. “Emotion in animation has a tendency to accomplish this,” he explains. “That little blob, to me, was the simplest and most effective way to express the emotion of sadness and depression, as well as the transition, or recovery, to happiness and interacting with the world.”
That said, psychiatrists like Alex Dimitriu argue that it’s impossible to divorce the Sad Blob ad from its larger pharmaceutical agenda — no matter how relatable it might have been. “These same ads also push people toward a particular treatment, when there may well be a good number of alternative medications and treatment modalities,” Dimitriu explains. Although Dimitriu certainly believes in prescribing medications to his patients, he says it isn’t helpful to have patients coming into his office demanding specific drugs they saw on TV.
“I am all for education and de-stigmatization, just less so for the marketing of specific medications,” Dimitriu notes. “With commercials, it may be impossible to have one without the other.”
Another major failure of the Sad Blob ad, per clinical psychologist Carla Manly, is that it didn’t recommend “psychotherapy as an adjunct to taking psychopharmaceuticals.” She remembers discussing the commercial at length at a neurobiology seminar in the late 2000s after it had already become ubiquitous. Her colleagues complained that the Sad Blob falsely pushed medication as the only approach to treatment, something that saves insurance companies money and benefits drug companies, but comes at “the expense of the public’s long-term psychological health.”
As much as the Sad Blob may have raised awareness for clinical depression, diagnoses of the disorder have continued to rise since the early aughts, and have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. If Smith had to personify our collective state of mental health today, he says he might consider a glass character as a metaphor for fragility, or a large basketball to symbolize bullying. But at the same time, he’s not sure that things have changed that much either: “I don’t think I’d approach the design much differently than when I drew the blob.”
Two decades later, it would seem as though our collective dark cloud hasn’t lifted, even if we’re better at describing how it feels to live with it.