Finding the ability to erase prejudice

This week a Government-backed award promoting disability in advertising will be unveiled. But while the industry has managed to embrace ethnic diversity, disability seems to be a bridge too far, says Victoria Furness

Disability is potentially the last remaining taboo in advertising. Issues of gender and race have been addressed by the industry and organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission have worked hard to challenge prejudices in society.

There are many advertisements featuring ethnic minorities in everyday situations, but the same cannot be said of disabled people. There are 8.6 million disabled people in the UK – 15 per cent of the total population – according to government figures, but current representations of disability in advertising are not equivalent to the proportion of disabled people in society.

“Disability is 20 years behind gender and race in advertising: mainstream images of disability is long overdue,” says Maria Eagle, the Government Minister for Disabled People. This is despite the Government’s initiative at the end of 2000 to promote images of disability throughout its advertising. In the wider world, the situation is even worse.

To address this shortcoming, the Minister for Disabled People has announced a new category in the Marketing Week/CIM Effectiveness Awards, called Images of Disability. The aim of the award is to encourage the creative industry to increase the visibility of disabled people in advertising.

Scope, a charity that focuses on cerebral palsy, already runs awards for agencies that use disability in advertising, as does the Leonard Cheshire foundation for disabled people. Both groups support the Government’s initiative. “There are not enough images of disabled people out there,” says Scope press and PR manager Christina McGill. “The more that everyday images occur, the more significant they will be in helping to break down the barriers disabled people face in everyday life.”

But most agencies have reservations in portraying disabled people in advertising. “The problem is how to represent the proportion of the population in a way that is relevant and which is not making a token issue or seeming to be exploitative in any way,” says Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

John Poorta, head of account planning at D’Arcy, the agency which drew up guidelines to accompany the award, agrees: “It is difficult enough to come up with a great piece of advertising, let alone contributing to a social cause.” But there are signs that some organisations are willing to make this step. Retailer Uniqlo, for example, features a ten-year-old boy with cerebral palsy in its autumn/winter campaign.

Another current image of disability on television is BBC1’s ident featuring a group of young men dancing in their wheelchairs. This formed part of the rebranding strategy around BBC1 focusing on rhythm, movement and dance. The ident in question represented hip-hop.

“We didn’t specifically go out to represent people in wheelchairs, but that type of music and movement,” says Christine Madden, head of marketing for BBC1. The BBC came in for criticism from some members of the media for trying to be too politically correct but the company claims that the ad generated only positive feedback and customer service did not record a single complaint.

Campaigns that have generated praise from charities in their depiction of disability are those which have reflected disabled people in an everyday situation. Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO (AMV), for instance, created a TV campaign for BT’s videophone last December, which featured a deaf girl using a videophone to chat to her friend in sign language, while at work. “We quite liked the idea of presenting people with disabilities in a normal environment where they are doing a normal day’s work assisted by technology to some degree,” says AMV board account director Christy Stewart-Smith.

In 1997, Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam (W&K) created a series of ads for Coca-Cola as part of its “Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola” campaign. One of the ads featured a blind man at a football match whose friends provide a running commentary of the game. “We found an obsessive football fan who happened to have a visual disability,” says Jon Matthews, creative director at W&K. “In creating the concept for that campaign, we felt it wasn’t about people with disabilities, but people who were football fans.”

One campaign that provoked controversy was for Hamlet Miniatures, a sub-brand of Hamlet Cigars, that ran last June. Created by cdp-travissully, the ads featured dwarves in a number of situations where their height proved a hindrance. “Hamlet has been around for 35 years and has set up an advertising platform that is solace in the face of adversity,” explains Simon North, managing director of cdp-travissully. “So we picked up on things that dwarves found were a daily hindrance.”

As expected, the three executions received mixed reviews. While the ad picked up the Cannes Gold for Best Press Campaign, there were several complaints from Middle England. Most complainants, however, objected to the depiction of a urinal in one of the ads. Interestingly, none of the complaints received came from disabled people, but instead were from a third party complaining on behalf of disabled people.

Some companies have gone one step further through cause-related marketing initiatives. Uniqlo, for instance, not only featured a boy with cerebral palsy in its latest campaign, but has worked with Scope on joint fundraising initiatives and ran a No Logo campaign throughout August and September to persuade customers to donate their unwanted, branded clothing to Scope in return for a ten per cent discount on Uniqlo clothes.

But, putting the BBC1 ident and Uniqlo’s efforts aside, there have been few such ads this year. One agency blamed it on the industry being in the doldrums, so there are fewer advertisements being made overall. But there is also a reluctance in the industry to consider anything other than mainstream images.

Scope believes D’Arcy missed an opportunity to use a disabled person in the recent Fiat Punto ad, which featured a couple on a petrol station forecourt. The man says the lyrics to Human League’s “Don’t you want me baby”, but the woman ignores him. “They could have made a good joke about his behaviour if she were deaf and had a hearing aid,” believes Scope’s McGill. “Instead of winding up the window, she could have just turned off her hearing aid.”

But the overwhelming problem in the industry could be its preoccupation with glamour. As in the fashion industry, images of beauty and celebrities prevail – and, what is more, sell products.

D’Arcy’s Poorta disagrees: “It is an old-fashioned attitude that advertising is all about glamour. It is far from being the only way in which advertising works.” This may be true, but ads featuring disabled people are still far from mainstream and, therefore, carry greater risk. While the creation of the Images of Disability Award represents a step forward, there is still much to be done to change attitudes in the advertising industry.


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