Political correctness hampers disability ads

New laws will soon demand that ads better reflect the roles of the disabled in society, but it’s a fine line between inclusion and exploitation, says Sonoo Singh

After racism, sexism and ageism, marketers are having to grapple with what seems to be the last remaining prejudice – disability.

When the final phase of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act takes full effect in October 2004, the Government plans to put the disability discrimination laws alongside those for race and sex and is expecting the advertising industry to take notice.

COI Communications has already drawn up a shortlist of agencies to pitch for the advertising campaign aimed at challenging disability discrimination (MW last week). The Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) brief for the ads is expected to reflect government plans to implement the next phase of the act.

A spokesman for DWP points out that with a collective spending power of &£45bn to &£50bn a year – ten per cent of the UK’s annual domestic consumption – disabled customers are not a group marketers can afford to neglect. There are more than 8.5 million disabled people in the UK. “The Government is trying to encourage the advertising industry to have a regard for the diversity in society and target the untapped potential of the disabled market,” he adds.

It is not that the industry has ignored this minority or failed to target this set of consumers in the past. Some well-known ads have used images of disabled people, including Howell Henry’s 1990 campaign for Fuji, which featured a man with Down’s syndrome stacking supermarket shelves. There’s also the Freeserve TV ad starring disabled model and athlete Aimee Mullins; the Hamlet tobacco ad, which featured dwarves in a toilet laughing at themselves for being too short to reach the urinals; and the Sony PlayStation campaign with a black man in a wheelchair.

But there are fears that advertisers may be forced to toe the line of political correctness in a way that could overwhelm the brand message and have the opposite effect on consumers. For instance, the Hamlet ad, created by CDP, was perceived by the public as a “bad taste, anti-smoking” campaign. According to COI research, political correctness was in play in the ad’s attempt to depict the reality for dwarves when visiting men’s toilets, but consumers thought the campaign to be exploitative in its use of dwarves to advertise the short cigar range.

Publicis chief executive Grant Duncan says: “Disability is incredibly far-ranging and extends beyond the deaf and the blind to include stress and even back-aches, which sometimes makes it difficult to depict in an ad. But images of the wheelchair, though fairly common, can be highly clichéd.”

Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners chairman Greg Delaney points to the obvious pitfalls when trying to challenge social attitudes through advertising – ads can be criticised of tokenism or of adopting a patronising tone.

The DWP, however, is at pains to point out that the industry has not been given any quotas to fill or specific instructions about how to avoid disability discrimination.

One industry observer says: “The simple fact is that advertising is not a form of social service, and so can be limited in its ability to change biases. And is it even right to try changing those prejudices when selling something like baked beans?”

But the 1995 Discrimination Act does not confine itself to advocating the inclusion of the disabled in advertising, it will also require that providers of goods and services take reasonable steps to ensure their inclusion. The principle behind this is that disabled customers should be able to receive goods and services in the same way that able-bodied consumers can.

Last month culture secretary Tessa Jowell bolstered the Government’s plans to combat disability discrimination when she called for a greater representation of disabled people on TV at a seminar organised by the Broadcasting and Creative Industries’ Disability Network. To coincide, Sky announced it had created a dedicated disability service team to deliver improved customer service for disabled people.

A Sky spokesman says: “The launch was based on commercial priorities, since we want to reach as many customers as possible.”

Other companies, such as Asda, also claim to reflect the real lives of customers, which includes the disabled. Asda has overhauled its store facilities and access for the disabled and has taken the step of introducing disabled mystery shoppers to test its policies to the full.

And two years ago, McDonald’s, alongside retailers such as the Co-op, linked up with the charity Leonard Cheshire for its VisABLE campaign to make a commitment to use disabled images in advertising. A spokeswoman for the fast-food chain says: “We have policies in place encompassing disabilities and we could defy critics who say that our ads, which regularly feature the lives of the disabled, smack of tokenism.” She points to the ads featuring a wheelchair user and, more recently, a campaign that stars a deaf child. The ads were created by Leo Burnett.

VisABLE’s corporate marketing project manager Peter Dickens says: “It is self-evident that disability is not really represented in mainstream advertising. The new government campaign will help raise the issue and make marketers take notice.”

Dickens is hopeful that as advertising practice changes, so will public attitudes. But though the government campaign may prompt some more thoughtful advertising strategies, the ad industry is keen to make clear it does not hold itself solely to blame for society’s lack of understanding of the issues surrounding disability.

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