Jo Higman – Selling mindfulness: applying multimodal critical discourse analysis to a meditation website

A post today by Jo Higman, who is a Research Nurse.  You can contact Jo if you’d like to discuss her research at

I’ve recently completed an MA in Health Communication at the University of Nottingham. When casting around for a topic for my dissertation, I was struck by the pervasiveness of mindfulness, in both popular culture and academia.

Mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is recommended by NICE (2009) as a relapse prevention strategy for recurrent depression.  Furthermore, mindfulness in one form or another has been embraced by the academic and health community, as evidenced by the >1000% increase in publications on the subject in the last 10 years (Web of Knowledge, 2015).

In parallel, there has been a proliferation of features promoting mindfulness in popular media. (Presently, a mindfulness colouring book is amongst Amazon’s top 10 bestsellers.) I began to explore how this centuries old practice was being discussed, with a view to explaining in some small way its growing popularity. Leafing through magazines, blogs, newspapers and websites, it soon became apparent that, almost without fail, these articles referenced one man, or his company: Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace. Fig 1 shows just a few.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Headspace is an online and mobile application, offering a mindfulness meditation programme on a subscription basis. The website is colourful and inviting, featuring text and images to market their product (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 (Headspace, 2015)

Fig. 2 (Headspace, 2015)

Given the rich visual data, I applied multimodal critical discourse analysis (MCDA) to interrogate the Headspace website. MCDA examines both language and images, with the aim of revealing hidden ideologies and power interests. Demonstrated as an effective approach for analysing websites by Thompson (2012) and Harvey (2013), it exposed some interesting findings, a brief outline of which are included here.

Modality refers to the truth value in text and images, and can often be found in modal verbs such as must, will, should, etc. But how is modality expressed through the visual choices made. Kress & van Leeuwen (2006) identify a number of ways this can be analysed, including colour, context, actor and props and so on. Initially, the Headspace website appears to consist largely of abstract images, low in modality. However, with the use of symbols, props and metaphors, modality is increased. Importantly, these images are clean, simple and replete with icons of modernity, such as laptops, mobile phones and (dare I say it?) beards. This is essential in lifestyle advertising and brings us on to the marketing strategies used by Headspace.

First of all, in order to offer a solution in the form of their mindfulness programme, Headspace need to construct a problem. This is done very skilfully on the site, through the lexical and visual choices they make. The website features a number of potential ‘problem’ areas, using buzzwords such as ‘creativity’ and ‘focus’ to tap into the zeitgeist of lifestyle consumerism. However, their main focus is that curse of twenty-first century living, stress. Whilst explicitly including stress as a topic on the site, they also discretely and repeatedly construct the notion within the consumer that modern life is hectic and stress is an obvious side effect.

Consider these two screenshots (fig. 3):

Fig. 3 (Headspace, 2015)

Fig. 3 (Headspace, 2015)

Here, the ‘life as a circus’ metaphor is used to excellent effect. The clown like character in the illustration is clearly engaged in a number of circus activities, spinning plates and a balancing act (multi-tasking!). This is reflected in the still from Andy Puddicombe’s TEDTalk (TED, 2012), which he delivers whilst juggling tomatoes throughout. ‘Juggling,’ ‘spinning plates,’ and ‘a balancing act’ are all phrases we use to describe our lives, and here they are being reflected back at us. The viewer can easily interpret and identify these images through this skilful use of metaphor. It is your life that is a circus. You are the clown in the image, spinning plates in the hope that it all doesn’t come crashing down.

If the viewer opens the TEDTalk clip, the language used by Andy further reinforces these images: “We live in an incredibly busy world. The pace of life is often frantic. Our minds are always busy, and we’re always doing something.” (TED, 2012). Here the use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ suggests a conversational ‘we’re all in this together’ scenario, when in fact it is a means of making an individual feel as if they are being spoken to, when realistically they are part of a mass audience. Again, a strategy frequently found in advertising discourse.

The fortunes of a particular shampoo brand were reversed in the UK, when acclaimed advertising agency, GoodPilot did this (fig. 4):

Fig. 4 (YouTube, 2015)

Fig. 4 (YouTube, 2015)

They gave us ‘the science.’ Now described by them as ‘the obligatory science message’ (GoodPilot, 2014) in health and beauty marketing, it is rare to find such an ad these days without a cascade of ‘science’ to support the benefits of the product. In that respect, Headspace are no different.

In the persistent navigation across the top of the page, there is ‘The Science,’ given added weight by means of the definite article. They frequently refer to ‘studies,’ ‘research’ and ‘scientists.’ The site is replete with icons and symbols to represent science: men (always men) in lab coats, test tubes, and so on. The text accompanying the images is high in modality, yet there is more hidden behind the images than is first revealed. A test tube is pictured emitting gas, but the gas has eyes. This personification of inanimate objects is a common strategy in New-Age self-help (Askehave, 2004), but is also a means of obscuring agency. That is to say, who is making the claims about science and brains changing shape? It is not explicit and we are distracted by the somewhat cute looking gas!

There is much, much more to the Headspace website, and this is just a snapshot of what may be revealed when using multimodal critical discourse analysis. If nothing else, I would urge you to have a look at the TEDTalk, which is a masterclass in skilful presentation and effective marketing. There are so many areas of the site which can’t be included here, but hopefully this has given a flavour.

It is important to end on this note; despite the analysis above, it is worth considering the Headspace programme in the context of an impoverished health service. The majority of those with depression and other common mental health problems are unlikely to access treatment of any kind on the NHS, less likely mindfulness. Given that a private therapist costs upwards of £60 a time, Headspace offers users an opportunity to try something which, for the price of a couple of lattes, may offer them a strategy to manage what can often be a chronic and debilitating disorder.


Askehave, I. (2004) If Language is a Game – These are the Rules: A Search into the Rhetoric of the Spiritual Self-Help Book If Life is a Game – These are the Rules. Discourse & Society 15(1): 5-31

GoodPilot (2014). [last accessed 27 October 2014]

Harvey, K. (2013). Medicalisation, pharmaceutical promotion and the Internet: a critical multimodal discourse analysis of hair loss websites. Social Semiotics 23(5): 691-714

Headspace (2015). [Last accessed 6 July 2015]

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. (2nd edn.) London: Routledge

TED (2012) All it takes is 10 mindful minutes. [Last accessed 27 October 2014]

Thompson, R. (2012) Looking healthy: visualising mental health and illness online. Visual Communication 11: 395-420

Web of Knowledge (2014) [Last accessed 21 October 2014]



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3 responses to “Jo Higman – Selling mindfulness: applying multimodal critical discourse analysis to a meditation website

  1. Cathy Stillman-Lowe

    Hello, hope you don’t mind me commenting. I have been concerned about mindfulness being subject to ‘mission creep’ and over-selling recently ie being used for purposes for which it was never originally intended. So I was really interested to see your blog post.

    1. I think it’s important to be aware of EXACTLY what NICE recommends. It does not recommend mindfulness per se for treating relapse in depression. This is the precise wording (from :

    “Provide mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for people who are currently well but have had 3 or more episodes of depression. Deliver in groups of 8–15 people in weekly 2-hour meetings over 8 weeks. Also offer 4 follow-up sessions in the next 12 months.”

    MBCT and ‘mindfulness’ are not the same in my book. Yes they seem so often to be conflated.

    2. I also think it is a pity that really reputable sources of guidance on mindfulness get shouted out by more commercial operations. Everything I learned, I got from a not for profit organisation called Breathworks. See:

    3. Finally I think it is very inaccurate to say that ‘The majority of those with depression and other common mental health problems are unlikely to access treatment of any kind on the NHS, less likely mindfulness’. GPs can offer medication to anyone presenting with a mental health problem, and IAPT (for all its faults) has increased access to talking therapies.

    Support is also available to patients from some superb mental health charities in the UK. Eg I have had information and peer support from Bipolar UK. All free of charge. It’s not a binary choice of NHS or private sector.

    Good wishes, Cathy

    • Jo Higman

      Hi Cathy. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog post. You’ve raised some great points, which I shall attempt to respond to.

      First of all, you’re right to point out that mindfulness and MBCT are two different things, and I’ve updated the post to make sure this is clear. Thank you.

      Regarding access to treatment, the UK government’s recent ‘Parity of Esteem’ agenda, states that only 25% of people with common mental health problems are in receipt of treatment (and the target for those receiving ‘talking therapy’ through IAPT initiatives is just 15%). I certainly agree that charities and other support networks make an extremely valuable contribution to the range of treatment options available.

      This post is a condensed version of a longer paper, which focuses on the marketing strategies used by one company to promote mindfulness. I hope to put up a link to the full paper once it’s published.

      Many thanks again for your comments.

  2. Good job! You’re right about the opportunistic power of the multi modal environment. Andy Puddicombe is a virtual wizard: headspace helped me ( I used the free trial and stopped smoking after forty three years. The insidious thing though about these opportunities to participate in something better is that some of these ( auppprted and accredited through networks onto thee BBC, for example), are part of a much more dodgy network that’s exploitative. I’m thinking of one I found a few years ago. On the surface you inputted you moods at different times of the day and it ‘helped’ you become ‘mindful’ of your personal state. When I looked into the provenance of this offer and it took some research, this moodspace was part of a whole series of websites that were about sex lines, chat lines and dating sites. No duty of care here and no one realizes because they take the context at face value.

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