Can TV advertising change attitudes?

June 6, 2017

Television advertising is all around us and the viewing evidence is that it is not including people with disabilities. Advertising executives often regard their industry as edgy and breaking new ground, but the reality is that it slots people into carefully defined audiences and is focussed on selling a simple message in 30 seconds.

Our expectations would be that this is not a combination that is ideal for telling more complex stories or providing a broader portrayal of people with disability. Is that always about stereotypes that are easy to sell or have there been genuine attempts and breakthroughs to provide a more-rounded, inclusive portrayal?

Incidental inclusion

Reflecting the call for people with disabilities to be included as part of the diversity of society, this has filtered through into television advertising. We find this coming through in crowd scenes or where there are multiple leads 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). Governments have also started to include people with disabilities in general advertising, such as the Australian Federal Government campaign aimed at increasing the involvement of teenage girls in sports Girls Make Your Move.

This is likely to "normalise" disability to some extent by ensuring that disability is “included” and part of the general message. It is fair to say that this only tends to happen in commercials that have broad, general public audiences.

Disability up front and centre

The use of people with disability in lead roles for mainstream products is also growing. A good example is a 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 from the UK attracted some criticism for potentially trivialising some disability issues, but also put the person with a disability in the lead role and telling their (funny) story.

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 multiple-advantage for advertisers: amputee veterans fit the stereotype of visible disability, are heroes and have generally fit attractive bodies.

“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.

But what are the issues?

Advertising tends to reinforce stereotypes rather than shatter them, as 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 impairment (and most people with disability do), then you are not going to identify yourself 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, limb difference, hearing aids or sign language, guide dogs, white canes and ever-smiling people with Down syndrome.

According to research by 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 potentially changing attitudes.

However, those attitudes are not going to be significantly shifted until we see more humour from Mars and less military heroes inspiring us as they overcome adversity.

Alex Varley, CEO

More content like this

Attitude Foundation Director Catia Malaquias gives her tips on effective diversity and inclusion in advertising.

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