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Disability and The Advertising Industry

  • Published: 2014-01-06 (Revised/Updated 2015-02-10) : Disabled World (Disabled World).
  • Synopsis: Article looks at the current advertising industry emphasis on superficial physical perfection and hesitation to use people with disabilities as models.

Main Document

Quote: "To include more people with disabilities in advertising we first need to understand how it can help."

The advertising industry's consistent emphasis on superficial physical perfection has led to the exclusion of people who experience forms of disabilities from advertising images. Fears on the parts of people who are able-bodied mean businesses have been hesitant to use people with disabilities as models. When people with disabilities do appear in advertising there is a strong focus on two disabilities - people who use wheelchairs and people who are deaf.

Advertising is largely a visual medium and needs equipment clues such as wheelchair users to denote disability as a portion of the diversity being depicted. Advertising tends to promote a specific acceptable appearance. Advertising images influence society in regards to what is acceptable in terms of appearance and what role models are acceptable to admire, communicate with, value, and associate with.

Chart showing ways advertising discriminates against people with disabilities
About This Image: Chart showing ways advertising discriminates against people with disabilities
There are a couple of ways in which the advertising industry contributes to discrimination. One of them involves the exclusion of people with disabilities who are deliberately ignored by advertisers and advertising agencies. By ignoring certain populations of people with disabilities in advertising, advertisers are hiding disability from the general public - a clear denial of the role people with disabilities play as consumers. Another way advertising contributes to discrimination involves certain advertisers, most notably charities, who present a particularly distorted view of disability and those who experience forms of disabilities with the goal of raising money.

Some charities, despite protests from organizations of people with disabilities, continue to be exploitative. Others concentrate on presenting the, 'courage and bravery,' of individuals with disabilities. Along with emphasizing the abnormality of the people involved, the approach reinforces the perceived, 'inadequacy,' of the rest of the population who experiences a form of disability.

Some charities have chosen to focus on abilities instead of disabilities where people are involved. The charities present, 'normal,' able-bodied attributes and the disabilities people experience are well - overlooked. Even though this may seem to be a step in the right direction, it may achieve fairly little where empowerment of people with disabilities is concerned. The approach denies the status of people with disabilities and disability culture. It obscures the need for change while perpetuating the impression that people with disabilities need to be supported by charitable organizations. The focus remains on people with disabilities instead of on the disabling society in which we live. The change in emphasis hides the fact that charities themselves are a basic part of the disabling process. Non-disabled persons do not usually depend on charities for the necessities of life.

Until very recently, people with disabilities had little to no say about how they were represented on television, in the news, or in advertising. While the criticisms made by media consumers with disabilities against the portrayal of disability and disability issues in the media are many and wide-ranging, they are not impossible for broadcasters to deal with and are not unreasonable. A number of the changes viewers and listeners would like to find taking place in broadcasting might be described as being, 'respect,' issues. These issues involve respecting the:

Advertising has an important role to play in the portrayal of people who experience forms of disabilities in the media. Inclusion of people with disabilities in creative output through advertising can help society to recognize that disability is not limited to just a few people and that it is a normal and substantial part of the society we live in. It is understandable that advertising of itself cannot achieve this goal, but it can help.

There have been some examples of advertising featuring models and actors with disabilities, but it is commonly accepted by advertisers and their agencies that most of the time they do not actively seek to cast people with disabilities in ad campaigns. Most of the advertising featuring people with disabilities involves charities, or corporate sponsors of events for people with disabilities.

Disability - Brand or Exploitation

A fear that communications people might harbor is that by using disability too often they will somehow create an unintended advertising identification for their brand. The unintended branding equity might not only undermine the desired consumer takeout, it might blur the differences between one advertising campaign and another. In most of Europe, for example, companies are hesitant to include people with disabilities in ads because of advertising methods and social attitudes. Some companies; however, have begun to learn what accurate and non-stigmatizing advertising images are capable of producing.

Good images of disability and well-produced ads are designed to promote brand loyalty while making a product more popular. Recent research has shown that the consumer with disabilities is very much more brand loyal than other consumers. Advertisers are realizing that people with disabilities buy products such as milk, soap, and jewelry. We use services, just like other people.

The criticism of being exploitative is also directed at advertisements featuring people with disabilities. Most people, particularly young to middle aged people, are open-minded about people with disabilities being featured in any kind of advertising. Many endorse unusual and challenging depictions of people with disabilities in fact.

Yet some viewers harbor deeply conservative views. They believe any person with a form of disability featured in an advertisement that is not a part of a fundraising campaign is exploiting that person. The view is founded on the misguided belief that every person with a form of disability needs, 'looking after,' and is unable to look after themselves.

Others criticize ads as being exploitative because they feel they themselves are being exploited as a viewer. They assume the advertiser is attempting to use sympathy to entice them to purchase or prefer a product. People with disabilities, on the other hand, feel that as long as the person being featured has given permission to be in the ad and has been fairly paid it is not exploitative.

Chart showing ways advertising discriminates against people with disabilities
About This Image: Chart showing ways advertising discriminates against people with disabilities
Ways Advertising Can Help

To include more people with disabilities in advertising we first need to understand how it can help. What kind of difference can it make in helping to mainstream disability? Advertising plainly cannot resolve every issue faced by the disability community, although if it does its part there are some issues that advertising can affect over a period of time. These issues include the following:

Challenging Expectations of Low Capability: Ads depicting people with disabilities in responsible jobs or senior positions, or contributing to the camaraderie at work for example, would help to reframe the assumptions and expectations of some people. Advertising that focuses on or depicts the talents and capabilities of people with disabilities would as well.

Acclimatization: Advertising can help to overcome the common feeling of isolation that people with disabilities often times experience by showing examples of interaction between people with disabilities and able-bodies persons. Doing so could act as a form of informal education, helping non-disabled persons to realize they can chat, joke, or even argue with people with disabilities like they would with anyone else.

Raising Visibility: At the most basic level, people with disabilities experience a lack of presence in the media. The fact that we are not a regular feature of mainstream media in the way able-bodied persons are strengthens the negative perception that we are somehow not a part of supposedly normal life. It is well-known that advertising has contributed to raising the visibility of members of ethnic minorities. It is our hope that advertising can play a similar role in raising the visibility of people with disabilities through inclusion of a broader range of disabilities in advertising. Including more people with disabilities in advertising would help to build a greater subconscious sense of how normal it really is to see people with disabilities living our lives with others in society. In this sense, any form of increased presence in advertising is good, whether it involves a featured part, or whether the person is an extra.

Improving the Image of People with Disabilities in Media

To consciously seek to include more people with disabilities in advertising there are some things that may help the process. These things include:

Based on research there are some examples of how people with disabilities might best be portrayed. Support roles offer a great opportunity to feature people with disabilities in better roles. A person with a disability should not automatically be ruled out of a role where they are featured as a second or passing character. This would be better than simply an, 'extra,' role and offers the opportunity to feature a person with a disability in a situation or role that has nothing at all to do with disability. Presenting people with disabilities in support parts as competent fellow managers or work cohorts for example indicates real inclusion.

Presenting a person with a form of disability as a victim might be used but only when appropriate. People with disabilities are, after all, another part of society as a whole. It is clear that a significant and vocal minority of people with disabilities will challenge any depiction of people with disabilities in dis-empowered or, 'victim,' roles so any use of people with disabilities in this respect must be treated carefully. 'Hero,' images should be used very sparingly if at all. Constant depictions of high achievers with disabilities have to potential to further disable the disability community.

Everyday situations including more people with disabilities, instead of situations especially associated with disability, should be shown more often. From the point of view of encouraging integration and diversity there is a great amount of merit in showing people with disabilities interacting with able-bodied persons in a non-disabled-specific context.

Avoiding the use of able-bodied people as advocates of people with disabilities is important. Let people with disabilities speak for themselves. Give them good lines and let them demonstrate their empowerment. We should be aware that there are millions of care givers for people with disabilities who are also commonly under-represented in the media and attempt to show them as equals.

Humor may be very powerful at, 'normalizing,' issues. It has the ability to bring us closer to characters with whom we laugh. There is plenty of scope to challenge widely-held assumptions concerning disability through humor and irony, yet obviously beware the fine line between laughing with and laughing at. It is also challenging to show people with disabilities being unpleasant or mean. It is the able-bodies who are often times more sensitive about the issue than people with disabilities.

The reality is that advertising reflects society and therefore most advertisers will at some point create ads that somehow feature their intended audiences. No matter what the target group there will be people with disabilities within it. Because there is a large population of people with disabilities there is clearly an opportunity for advertisers to create a richer depiction of any target audience through inclusion of people with disabilities.

By using positive images of disability, advertisers can present powerful brand messages. At the same time people with disabilities can be featured as included equals instead of excluded victims. Advertising can help the general public to become more comfortable with people with disabilities and the language of disability. Advertisers and agencies need to become better informed on disability issues. If the business community were better educated about the size and potential of the market, advertising programs with the consumer with disabilities in mind would be created more often, benefiting advertisers, agencies, and people with disabilities.

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