People with disabilities make up 17.9% of the UK population, but are only represented by 0.06% of people featured in adverts, according to Lloyds’ ‘Reflecting Modern Britain?’ inclusion and diversity report. The study examined 1,340 TV and press adverts from 40 brands paid for by the top 20 advertising spenders in 2015.
On the other side of the world, Marketing magazine asked over 1,000 Australians how important it was for advertising to represent the diversity of the Australian population. Disability was rated third most important at 52% after Gender (58%) and Age (55%), but had the greatest disparity, with only 18% saying that disability was represented well (vs. 36% and 31% respectively).
Advertising is much more than a tool to talk to, engage and sell to consumers. Done right, it’s a reflection of our brand values, our culture and even our society. A focus on superficial physical perfection has excluded many people, especially those who are disabled.
What message does this send? Not seeing yourself reflected in everyday life isolates and reinforces negative beliefs. Seeing people who represent you and to whom you can relate empowers, self-validates, inspires, and has a positive impact on what you consider to be attainable.
Why is it important that ads depict disabled people? Leaving the moral case to one side for now, let’s explore the economic case. According to The Return on Disability® Group, a US based economic research firm, over 1.3 billion people (17% of the global population) are estimated to experience some form of disability. If you add in caregivers or friends and family who are more inclined to understand the impact of disability than most, this adds another 2.4 billion customers, giving them combined an annual disposable income of over $8 trillion!
We should all know by now that there are few countries in the world where the population is not ageing and that the distribution of wealth rests firmly in their court. According to the US Census Bureau the incidence of disability in the over 65’s is 51.8% versus 18.7% in the general population above the age of five. It’s simple maths to deduce that as this cohort increases, then so will the prevalence of disability.
The numbers are just too large to be ignored. But what’s to be done about it? A shift in mind-set is required to leverage this opportunity and to counteract the myths that engulf disabled people and are arguably hardwired into the essence of our society.
Disability stereotypes are one of our many unconscious biases. Why do we feel awkward when we encounter a disabled person? Last year, the UK disability charity Scope felt compelled to air an ad to educate the non-disabled population on the importance of not simply avoiding disabled people out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. While the ad played up the “cringe” humour, it raised an unsettling question – why is society biased? Why have myths circulated and become so ingrained that we feel this way?
Let’s look at how disabled people are portrayed. They’re different, often in a lesser way. Or they’re superhuman – an example to us all on courage and patience. Their life is one of sorrow, and the non-disabled are obligated to help them. Their disability is something to be fixed or cured. They’re a danger to society (especially those with a mental disability) and lastly that they are compensated in some manner by having greater but nebulous abilities in other ways!
These tacit beliefs do us no credit but are important to understand. Brands have the ability to change society’s attitudes for the better and to influence mind sets. Arguably, they have a responsibility to do so to fight society’s prejudices. They have a responsibility to accurately reflect the diversity of their audience. By doing so, they normalise and acclimatise society to be more accepting, not only in terms of appearance, but on who are suitable role models.
Advertising has the power to reframe society’s capability expectations through portraying disabled people in a positive light, for example as having responsible jobs, being in senior positions, being talented, and being part of camaraderie at work. More importantly, advertising can help make disabled people visible, particularly the 92% that are not wheelchair bound in the UK! By using positive images of disability, advertisers can present powerful brand messages.
The European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) has helpfully produced guidelines on how to portray disabled people in advertising (http://www.eaca.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/portrayal-of-people-with-disabilities.pdf). These are aimed at encouraging both “advertisers and their agencies to cast people with disabilities more frequently in commercials and to help them to understand the sensitivities involved.”
Disabled people, like the rest of us, come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Unlike the rest of us, they rarely see their lives reflected in advertising or pop culture. The key to getting it right is to be authentic and not to focus on differences or the disability.
It’s a challenge to get it right, and can get uncomfortable and awkward. Many shy away, afraid of the ramifications of getting it wrong in our connected world. But, disability needs to be normalised, understood and accepted. The rewards are huge both for society as a whole and the brands that get it right. These five brands ably demonstrate that they at least are prepared to lead the way!
1. Mars Chocolate UK – Maltesers
Mars aired three ads in the UK last October where the heroine was disabled. All three were inspired by real-life stories from disabled people describing universally embarrassing situations. The campaign, initiated as part of a competition by Channel 4, built on previous successful campaigns that “looked on the light side of the awkwardness that difference brings”.
Sales grew by 8.1% and brand affinity grew by 20% making the campaign the most effective for Maltesers in a decade. On the other hand, one of them got the brand into the infamous top ten most complained about ads in 2016!
2. Mondelez Honeymaid – US
Honeymaid as part of its inclusive “This is Wholesome” campaign in 2015 featured a cross-section of American families – same-sex, mixed-race, blended, immigrant, single parents, and disabled. The disability ad features a disabled aunt with her niece making apple and cheddar melts together on their graham crackers. The ad also includes audio descriptions on the 15-second TV version.
3. Target – Australia
Target Australia as well as their chief competitor Kmart are both renowned for their consistent use of disabled children in their catalogues, print and TV ads. This ad aired by Target for pyjamas features a girl with Down syndrome enjoying Easter eggs with her siblings. Target’s ethos is to “embrace all Australians regardless of race, shape, size or disability”. Their adult activewear collection is modelled by wheelchair racer Robyn Lambird, who has cerebral palsy.
4. NBN Network – Australia
The NBN network as part of its Australian broadband roll out “tells the story of two friends, both hearing impaired, using sign language to re-connect over the NBN via a video chat.” The ad was created in collaboration with Deaf Services Queensland to demonstrate how the network supports under-represented communities, which they clearly achieved with this emotive ad.
5. Canadian Tire – Canada
Canadian Tire originally aired “Wheels” during the Rio Olympics as part of their three ad campaign “We All Play For Canada,” but it has since gone viral. The ad tells the story of a group of young boys who invite a boy in a wheelchair to play basketball with them. To make him feel welcome they play on makeshift wheelchairs. Reminiscent of a Guinness ad from 2013 that also featured wheelchair basketball, this ad takes the theme much further and ably brings the ad’s tagline to life. It also clearly supports the Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charity that helps kids from families in financial need participate in organised sport and physical activity and has helped over 1.3 million children.
Speaking to Marketing Week, Michele Oliver, Mars Chocolate UK’s VP of Marketing has stated: “In terms of why we hadn’t featured disability in our ads before, the honest answer is that we had not sufficiently thought about it – There was an unconscious acceptance [of the status quo].” Now is the time to ensure that you’re not doing the same!