How the Ad Council and Amazon Ads used music to help facilitate conversations about mental health

June 23, 2023 | By Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter

When Nico Craig was in middle school, he’d make playlists to help him make sense of the emotions he experienced while growing up Black and queer. Discovering and curating lists of songs on the bus every day allowed him a lens through which to understand the ups and downs of life. “My experience has been like a roller coaster,” says Craig, a 21-year-old musician and a trans activist living in Los Angeles. “I’m simply trying to better understand myself and the way I am. But mainly my experience is knowing that happiness is always a choice we can make to change our circumstances.”

One song in particular that he connected with along the way was “Forever Now” by Michael Bublé. For Craig, this song reminded him of his relationship with his mother and the enduring power of parental love. “When your parents don’t understand you and what you’re feeling, it’s reassuring to know that they still love and care for you anyway,” Craig says. “A transparent way of communicating feelings is so effective, whether it be through art, music, a letter, a thoughtful deed. How parents love us affects us in so many ways we don’t realize. Love is all around us, and all they see is you and nothing else.”

This is why Craig chose “Forever Now” as his song to be featured in “Sound It Out: When You Can’t Say It, Play It.” The Ad Council and Amazon Ads Brand Innovation Lab (BIL) designed the new campaign, which launched in April, to help families break the ice through the power of music. The campaign includes a first-of-its-kind digital tool that is accessible on and invites parents and caregivers to type in an emotion like “happy,” “angry,” or “sad,” then leverages the Amazon Music library of over 100 million songs to serve up a list of curated tracks that reflect the requested feeling. Parents can then ask Alexa to share one of the songs with their teen.

Craig was among four influencers featured on the “Sound It Out: When You Can’t Say It, Play It” landing page, where he discussed how music has helped him throughout his life.

“I really love the ‘When You Can’t Say It, Play It’ experience with Amazon because it’s very intimate. It’s so satisfying to put my energy into music that can hold my hand and nurture me while I’m going through it. I feel less alone and that my feelings are valid,” Craig says. “I know how important it is for parents and teens to have conversations about mental health. Action has to be made with intention. Life doesn’t control us—we control it. And changing our dialogue about mental health is the first step for both parents and teens.”

Creating a first-of-its-kind interactive experience

In 2022, Amazon Ads first collaborated with the Ad Council for “Alexa, what is love?,” an initiative that updated the digital assistant’s answer to the question using voices of everyday people to foster meaningful action and inclusivity. After the success of that campaign, Amazon Ads and the Ad Council wanted to work together to find new ways to use technology to connect with audiences on important topics like mental health.

“More than half of lifetime mental illness begins before the age of 14, yet many do not receive the help they deserve until 10 years after the onset of symptoms. Therefore, it’s crucial for caregivers to initiate conversations about their teens’ emotional well-being early and often,” says Heidi Arthur, chief campaign development officer at the Ad Council. “It can be hard to put thoughts and feelings into words, but music can help take the pressure off caregivers and kids to share how they feel. Universally, music is a channel we all use to express our emotions so when we can’t say it, there’s probably a song that can.”

The BIL leveraged Amazon Music’s mood etymology—the system used to classify songs by emotion—to power a search tool that enables parents and teens to discover a song, simply by entering a feeling. Then, BIL coupled that with Alexa’s song-sharing tech, which enables parents to easily send a song as a way to check in with their teen through any Alexa-enabled device.

“We just thought this was a really powerful tool to help parents and teens figure out what they’re feeling and share it,” says Dustin Duke, principal creative director at BIL. “The Ad Council was amazing to work with—they were completely open to new ideas, and they put their trust in us to bring their insight to life in an actionable way. It was a good mix of an important cause and a big idea.”

As Arthur explains, the Ad Council wanted to connect with critical audiences with this message. According to a 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40% of high school students feel sad or hopeless enough to not engage in regular activities for at least two weeks in the previous year. Additionally, “Hispanic and multiracial students were more likely than others to have persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness; and Black students were more likely to attempt suicide.”

“Our decision to lean into Amazon Music and Alexa was guided by an important audience insight: Black and Hispanic communities are equally or more likely to use audio streaming and smart speakers than the general public,” Arthur says.

To promote the bilingual digital experience, BIL produced Muchas Flores, a slice-of-life film directed by award-winning duo Novemba. The spot drops viewers into the tension and awkwardness of a mother and daughter’s attempt at connection. Through small gestures and body language, the film acknowledges how challenging it can be for parents and caregivers to not only initiate the conversation, but also keep it going. As shown in the film, by sharing songs like Ambar Lucid’s “A Letter to My Younger Self,” parents can connect with their teens through the art of music and open up avenues to deeper connection.

“Amazon has powerfully amplified our message by weaving the Sound It Out campaign throughout streaming video, digital, audio, Fire TV, and more,” Arthur says. “And as parents and caregivers engage with the digital experience, Amazon is helping them to take the action that is our campaign’s primary goal: having conversations with their teens around emotional well-being.”

How music and brands can start real conversations

Since the “When You Can’t Say It, Play It” experience launched on April 13, the campaign has received nearly 100 million impressions with 30,000 songs shared in just the first week.1

“The response has been very positive. Each listen potentially represents a caregiver and their teen having a moment of connection,” Arthur says. “We also saw a powerful response from the media, with news coverage across outlets including Mashable, Ad Age, Adweek, and more. I think that really speaks to how innovative and impactful this experience is.”

When using the tool herself, Arthur was struck by the breadth and complexity that the library of emotions represented. “It’s not just about feeling ‘happy’ or ‘sad’—you can type in complex emotions like ‘disappointed’ or ‘apathetic’ and receive a playlist of songs that speak to that feeling,” Arthur says. ”It really has the power to help open up conversations around a wide range of topics.”

Craig and his mother, Ellen, have been using the tool to send songs back and forth, having recently shared tracks from Selena Gomez and Anthony Ramos.

“I really think that this tool is a great way to bridge the communication between parents and teens when there is a barrier that is often up and where teens feel as though their parents aren’t willing to listen to some of the challenges that they may face,” Ellen says. “Music has a way of speaking while healing, and when you can’t say it, play it.”

Craig and his mother both stress the importance for brands to stand up and lead on important topics like this.

“Amazon and the Ad Council doing this project is amazingly soothing and refreshing,” Craig says. “I feel protected by such a large organization that folks across the globe interact with every second of the day. It sends such a huge message from far and wide that it’s never too late to ask for help when you need it. Nobody has to be in this alone.”

And research shows that consumers want to see brands leading with their values. According to the 2023 Higher Impact report from Amazon Ads and Environics Research, 69% of consumers say they are more likely to purchase an item from a brand that is willing to take a stand on social issues and conflicts.

“We’re proud to continue working with the Ad Council on campaigns that drive meaningful conversations,” said Alan Moss, vice president of global advertising sales at Amazon. “The Ad Council’s initiative to create open, accepting, and proactive discussions around mental health resonates with our goals to do better and be better for our customers, employees, and communities.”

The Ad Council also recognizes the power for brands to facilitate meaningful conversations.

“Widespread societal change takes time and resources, and when you can bring multiple stakeholders together around a singular issue, you can accelerate impact at scale,” Arthur says. “Through Amazon’s reach, technology, creativity, and innovative thinking, we had the opportunity to bring this conversation-starting power of music directly into families’ homes and devices. By working with teams of people who are committed to using their place in the industry to make a difference, we can continue to drive positive social impact and break down the barriers surrounding mental health.”

In this case, it’s important to hit play and listen.

1 Amazon internal data, 2023