So has advertising embraced the inclusion of people with disabilities? Does it show diversity or reinforce stereotypes of people with disability? Does it have the power to change opinions and attitudes?
Stereotype or portraying realism?
Television advertising may sometimes consider itself to be breaking new ground, but by its nature it puts people into carefully defined market niches or audiences and is also trying to get a message sold in 30 seconds.
According to research from Roy Morgan the viewing of commercial television is declining, but still 85% of people watch it each day. That means that those people are being exposed to a lot of television commercials (up to 47 per day according to other research from the UK). On this basis television advertising remains a powerful medium for persuasion and changing attitudes. That advertising also sits between programs that include people with disabilities and have their own impact on people attitudes to people with disabilities.
It would be expected that it would tend to lead to a general reinforcement of stereotypes, rather than telling more complex stories or broader portrayal of people with disability and not focussing on their disabilities.
Is that always the case or have there been genuine attempts and breakthroughs to provide a more-rounded, inclusive portrayal?
Disability specific advertising
There is a whole genre of advertising specifically dealing with disability, either disability-related themes such as Paralympics (UK Channel 4’s We’re the Superhumans campaign), disability services (like the National Disability Insurance Scheme television commercials for Australian Unity) or awareness about disability inclusion like Scope Victoria’s campaign that included a man with cerebral palsy singing along to Radiohead’s Paranoid Android.
Image: Scope Victoria's Paranoid Android television commercial
These are featuring people with disabilities in a lead role (and generally they are now people with actual disabilities, unlike the infamous Brazilian Vogue campaign for the Paralympics that photo-shopped some disabilities onto their models) and showing that they are like other people. These commercials are intended more for a general public audience to communicate about people with disabilities, with some secondary messages of empowerment and inclusion for people with disabilities.
An interesting variant on this approach was an award-winning campaign from CoorDown, the Italian Down syndrome association, where mainstream television commercials and print advertisements were “recreated” with people with Down syndrome. This involved a wide range of brands from cars (Toyota) to coffee (illy) and had significant measured impact on general attitudes.
Image: Toyota commercial from CoorDown campaign with "before" and "after" versions
Reflecting the call for people with disabilities to be included along with everyone else, this has also filtered through into advertising. We particularly see this in general crowd scenes where a disabled person is included, or when there are multiple characters in a commercial.
A major ongoing example of this is to include incidental people with disability in commercials targeting the American Super Bowl final (which is generally the highest rating program in the USA).
Disability up front and centre
The use of people with disabilities in lead roles advertising mainstream products is growing. A good example is the Canadian Tire television commercial portraying inclusion with children playing basketball, including the wheelchair-using lead.
Some advertisers are prepared to push beyond stereotypes and make quirky commercials featuring people with disability and humour. The Maltesers campaign attracted some criticism for potentially trivialising some disability issues, but also put the person with a disability in the lead role and telling their story.
Image: TV Commercial from Maltesers disability-themed campaign
In contrast to this, a recognised trend in American television (and other) advertising is the inclusion of amputees and they are usually sourced from the growing ranks of disabled military veterans. This has a double-advantage for advertisers: amputee veterans fit the stereotype of visible disability and heroes and have generally fit bodies.
Image: Canadian Tire Hoop Dreams TV commercial
“The loss of a limb doesn’t mar the face. It also doesn’t require any lengthy explanation – it’s obvious and recognizable. If somebody has a physical disability, like an amputee, that’s definitely something that can reach out and say ‘yes, that person is disabled,’” said Josh Loebner, director of strategy at Knoxville agency DesignSensory and founder of the site Advertising and Disability.
Part of a reaction to this “disability is marketable as long as it is still beautiful people” approach is American advocacy group Changing the Face of Beauty, which pushes for a diverse range of disabled people to be included in commercials.
But what are the issues?
Whilst people with disability appearing in advertising is getting more prevalent, there is still a tendency to fall back into stereotypes of disabled people overcoming adversity or being inspirational.
People with disability are likely to be relegated to appearing in television commercials about disability, with a few exceptions with main disability leads advertising mainstream products.
Advertising tends to reinforce stereotypes rather than shatter them, as it is ultimately designed to sell a product and advertisers have 30 seconds to get a message across. In such constrained circumstances, easily-recognisable stereotypes are easiest to portray as audiences “understand” them and can then connect with the product. As a number of British commentators note for disability this means that it about inspiration and overcoming adversity, not doing “everyday activities such as cooking, working or household chores.”
If you have an invisible disability (and most people with disabilities do), then you are not going to see yourself reflected in television commercials. A key thing for advertisers choosing disability as a sales tool is that it must scream out loud that this commercial is being disability-inclusive. That usually means familiar clichés about disability: wheelchairs, missing limbs, hearing aids or sign language, guide dogs, white canes and smiling people with Down syndrome.
The Australian situation
Australian brands have also embraced diversity in their advertising, with family retailers Kmart and Target including people with disabilities. Governments have also started to include people with disabilities in general advertising, such as the Federal Government campaign aimed at increasing the involvement of teenage girls in sport Girls Make Your Move.
The interest in disability and how it is portrayed in advertising is also growing. Diversity Council of Australia’s CEO Lisa Annese has highlighted that advertisers need to both think about what a “traditional, normal family” looks like and have to be careful about being tokenistic. In an article in The Citizen she argues that it is a more complex process than just having disabled people in a commercial, “I think organisations shouldn’t be judged by one ad, but maybe by their ad plus by the way their brand behaves, (by) their policies and (by) the way they treat their staff.”