Advertising is moving away from the portrayal of disabled people as victims, a reflection of society’s shifting perception. But mixed reactions to the new images show there is still a distance to go before advertisers hit the right stride. Al

Poster ads featuring a man with no arms or legs is no longer an unusual sight on the high street. But Nike’s use of the disabled athlete Peter Hull in its pre-Olympic campaign this year was the latest example of a rare phenomenon: disabled people being used in brand advertising.

“We didn’t go looking for a disabled person and it wasn’t as if we used Peter to shock people,” says Peter Brascegirdle of Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson who helped to create the ad. “We wanted to do an inspirational campaign about running a marathon. It was only after we decided this that we asked Peter to take part because we felt his example was remarkable. But we wanted the focus to be the marathon, not his disability.”

Less than a decade ago, this would have been completely unheard of. Disabled people either stared helplessly at us from charity ads or they weren’t seen at all.

Over the past few years, however, an increasingly vocal disabled community has attacked the dominant image of themselves as “tragic but brave” victims, forcing people to think again.

As a result, the recent Scope, MenCap and RNIB campaigns have launched drives to educate as much as to elicit aid, in an effort to banish stereotypes of disabled people.

That brands such as Nike and Barclaycard (sponsor of the 1996 Paralympics) are now doing the same is testament to the way in which disabled people have made themselves a much more powerful force.

The latest ad from Calvin Klein jeans suggestively incorporates learning disability into its latest advertising, sensitively labelled “the village idiot look” by the Daily Mirror. It shows a man who could have learning difficulties wearing denims and smiling away from the camera. Though Calvin Klein has denied the man is disabled and has stated that the ad is part of a commitment to showing “real people”, others did not quite see it the same way.

Glamour magazine art director Russell Labosky says CK had taken the “freak show carnival route”.

However, most of the complaints seem less concerned about how it may depict learning disability with the fact that the model isn’t immediately “shaggable”.

The fact that CK would not admit it intended to give the model the appearance of having learning disabilities is also revealing.

Disability is still an area in which few advertisers dare to deal: a situation that wasn’t helped by HHCL & Partners’ Fuji TV commercial six years ago which portrayed a man with learning disabilities working in a supermarket where customers stared at and avoided him because of his appearance. A snapshot of him smiling at the end was supposed to demonstrate photography’s power to overcome prejudice.

The commercial – part of a wider campaign which also dealt with racial discrimination – was hailed by its creator as marking the beginning of an era of socially responsible advertising. “The real world is changing,” claimed Adam Lury at the time. “Out here we are beginning to appreciate diversity. Advertising should grow up and take some responsibility for improving society by broadening its perspective.”

Others weren’t so sure. The campaign was the subject of 17 letters of complaint to the IBA, the then regulatory body for ITV, attracted widespread criticism from groups representing people with learning disabilities and eventually led to MenCap demanding its withdrawal after it had received over 150 complaints from its members. If HHCL is still committed to socially responsible advertising, there isn’t much evidence of it in its “beautiful people” campaign for Martini.

The problem with the Fuji ad wasn’t that it displayed the prejudice experienced by people with learning disabilities – in this it was a genuine breakthrough. What angered people was the way in which Fuji seemed to be offering the photographic equivalent of cosmetic surgery as a solution: “This film will even make the handicapped look beautiful,” seemed to be the message. As such, it was a new slant on a very old idea: learning disability was seen as a problem which, rather like dandruff or acne, would vanish when treated by a wonder product.

But it is the constant emphasis on disability as a problem which angers disabled people. Michael Oliver, a specialist on disability issues, has described it as “the medical model” of disability; a view which always sees disability as something in need of a cure. “This directly contradicts the outlook of many people who see themselves as disabled and proud of it,” he says.

Nike seems to have avoided the criticism levelled at Fuji. “We did a lot of research because we wanted to make sure our use of a disabled person was appropriate,” says Brascegirdle. “Also, Peter Hull was aware he was representing the disabled community and that he had a responsibility to present himself in a certain way.”

Nick Goss of Radar (The Royal Association for Disability & Rehabilitation) thinks this consideration has paid off. “On the whole we wel comed the Nike poster,” he says. “We thought it challenged people’s assumptions, especially as he was portrayed as special for running the mara thon, not because of his disability.”

This seems to be the official response from other organisations representing disabled people, including Scope and MenCap. However, a worker for a London-based disabled Arts group told me: “I know a lot of people who were pissed off by that ad. We always seem to be portrayed as non-human; either subhuman (Fuji), or superhuman (Nike). Why can’t they just show us going to McDonald’s or something?”

Many disabled people want advertising to represent disability without fuss and there is a general acceptance that carefully thought-out campaigns like Nike’s can only be a good thing. It moves disabled people out of the charity sphere, it challenges stereotypes and shows disabled people to be proud and active.

Of course, no one really believes advertisers will ever have social responsibility as a priority, but the representation of disabled people is as much a matter of economics as it is one of political correctness. The UK’s 6.5 million disabled is a figure which is estimated to be growing at the rate of 300,000 a year.

These are not people who are confined to institutions; they go to work, earn money and lead independent lives. As such, they constitute a 33bn market, which will get bigger. And, since they are consumers whose needs will have to be met, advertisers could do a lot worse than follow Nike’s example.

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