Why are brands failing to market to deaf and blind consumers?

Brands need to work harder to engage the millions of deaf and blind consumers living in the UK by seizing the opportunity to show their creativity and commitment to inclusivity.


Despite representing a significant cross section of British consumers, blind and deaf people consistently fail to show up on the radars of the UK’s biggest brands. An inability to engage with these consumers could prove extremely costly though, both from an ethical and economic perspective.

Estimates by The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) suggest that more than two million people in the UK – or one in 30 people – live with sight loss. Of these, some 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted.

An ageing population, combined with the growing occurrence of underlying health conditions such as diabetes and obesity, means that by 2020 the number of people with sight loss will rise to over 2.3 million, climbing to four million by 2050.

The deaf community is likewise a significant audience in the UK. British Deaf Association statistics show that over 11 million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss, with 151,000 people using British Sign Language.

With inclusivity and diversity so high on the agenda, why when it comes to deaf and blind consumers are brands still getting it wrong? Virgin Active, for example, was forced to apologise to model Simone Botha Welgemoed this week after it emerged the brand had edited out her cochlear implant from a campaign image, despite the fact she was wearing the implant during the photoshoot.

Welgemoed hit back at the brand, saying that her cochlear implant must have “shamed” the company so much that it had to be edited out.

It was important as a business to be representing greater diversity in our advertising – not only is it the right thing to do, but we are also getting closer to a wider cross-section of consumers.

Michele Oliver, Mars

Virgin Active’s recent behaviour is at odds with Procter & Gamble, which in September dismissed concerns over the cost and complexity of making its creative more accessible to blind and deaf consumers.

The FMCG giant claims that “most of its ads” are now suitable for blind people, thanks to the addition of audio descriptions.

READ MORE: P&G rethinks advertising to make it more accessible

The company has been working with special consultant on inclusive design Sam Latif for the past 17 years, who is herself registered blind, to make its advertising more accessible.

Latif, who is also global leader of P&G’s People with Disabilities affinity group, says the company recognises that it is the everyday interactions between consumers and brands which make the biggest difference to helping people feel valued and included.

“There are 13 million people in the UK who are deaf or who have a loss of vision and to enable them to appreciate our advertising not only makes a hugely positive impact on their experience, but of course makes good business sense too – that’s a group of people that we are not currently fully engaging with,” she explains.

“We are now close to 100% of P&G ads in the UK being considered for audio description and have partnered with external organisations such as broadcasters to ensure the technology to show inclusive adverts is available, irrespective of the channel they are aired on.”

From an internal perspective, being a global leader in P&G’s People with Disabilities employee group has helped Latif influence change for visually impaired people, both within the workplace and outside. This includes tailoring the recruitment process to open up job opportunities to people with disabilities.

“We have adaptations in place throughout our recruitment process to ensure applicants with disabilities can request accommodations as needed,” Latif explains. “We have also made it a priority to ensure that we drive inclusivity through all our communications with employees – for instance all our webcasts are now live captioned – enabling real-time participation for all.”

Breaking new ground

Committing to engage with the deaf community enables brands to attract and retain customers, as well as strengthen their public image, according to Áine Jackson, research and policy officer at the British Deaf Association (BDA).

She does, however, recognise a number of issues advertisers must consider, including the relatively low standard of accessibility to British Sign Language across all areas of public and commercial life, as well as a tendency among brands to overcomplicate their messaging.

“Many people do not realise that it is not just a reliance on audio content or other inaccessible technologies such as speech recognition that will make deaf people disengage with your brand,” Jackson explains.

“For many deaf people, English is a second language. They may have been brought up using British Sign Language, which has distinct and different grammar, syntax and linguistic features. This means that – while English transcriptions/subtitling are extremely useful steps in making campaigns accessible for deaf people [both people with hearing loss and the linguistic and cultural group of sign language users] – excessive text can be inaccessible and cause them to disengage.”

Jackson believes more thought needs to be applied to paring down excessive wording and thinking about how the message can be supported by graphics. She also advises brands to include British Sign Language translations alongside their adverts to help get their meaning across.

This was the approach taken by Channel 4 to publicise its coverage of the 2016 Rio Paralympics. The broadcaster created an ad break fully signed by deaf artist and actor David Ellington, described as the “most accessible ad break ever”.

Channel 4 took its commitment to inclusivity even further in September 2016 by screening the UK’s first sign language only advert as part of its collaboration with Maltesers.

The winner of Channel 4’s Superhumans Wanted competition, Maltesers used its £1m of free airtime to debut the award-winning ‘Look on the Light Side’ campaign promoting inclusivity and diversity. The advert in question showed a deaf girl explaining to her friend about the horrible moment she realised her boyfriend’s dog had eaten her hearing aid.

READ MORE: Channel 4: ‘Diversity sells and we’ve proved it’

“We decided to initially air the advert without subtitles to enable those without a hearing impairment to get an insight into the lives of those living with the disability,” explains Michele Oliver, vice-president of marketing at Mars.

“After the initial airing, ‘Theo’s Dog’ was aired on TV with subtitles to ensure everyone enjoyed the story whether they understood sign language or not. We wanted the campaign to be as authentic as possible and we worked closely with the charity Scope to ensure the adverts accurately represented the lives of people living with a disability.”

Maltesers then rolled out a new iteration of the campaign in support of World Braille Day 2017 on 4 January. Positioned at a London bus stop, the outdoor ad used model-made Maltesers as braille to tell the true story of a blind lady waiting at a bus stop who accidentally got on a fire engine instead.

READ MORE: Maltesers unveils braille bus poster as it puts inclusivity at heart of the brand

“It still remains a challenge to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so again we worked closely with focus groups – run by ourselves and with Scope – with people who live with a visual impairment and one story inspired our final script,” Oliver explains.

“This small-scale activation was a natural step in our ambition to get closer to the consumers who know and love our chocolate.”

She describes the ‘Look on the Light Side’ campaign as the first important step to “inclusive and inspiring advertising”, which ensures that all those with disabilities feel more represented in everyday media.

“It was important as a business to be representing greater diversity in our advertising – not only is it the right thing to do, but we are also getting closer to a wider cross-section of consumers,” Oliver adds.

“We want our brands to connect with consumers from all different viewpoints and backgrounds through our campaigns, and we have learnt that widening the lens of diversity can be a tool that can unlock creativity.”

Following the success of Maltesers’ campaign, Channel 4 launched its first annual Diversity in Advertising Award this year, looking specifically for ads that explore non-visible disability. Volvo was announced as the winner in July, however the brand pulled out of the competition earlier this month, claiming it had never seen or signed off the submission.

READ MORE: Why has Volvo pulled out after winning Channel 4’s £1m diversity competition?

Spearheading a cultural shift

Changing the way sighted people think about sight loss, in particular addressing the misconceptions that all blindness is experienced in the same way, were the key goals of RNIB and Channel 4’s ad break takeover in September.

To coincide with National Eye Health Week (18-24 September) the broadcaster showed five commercials from O2, Specsavers, Paco Rabanne, Amazon Echo and Freeview with five different visual filters applied showing what it looks like to watch TV when you have one of the UK’s most common eye conditions.

“We wanted to showcase that not all blindness is black blind. Some 93% of registered blind people can see something. There’s a very broad spectrum of sight loss, around 200 different sight conditions,” explains Martin Wingfield, RNIB head of marketing and communications.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for us to land that message and show the variations in conditions and severity, as well as the different ways sight loss affects people. It’s a good way of showing sighted people, for whom it is hard to imagine sight loss as a condition, the day-to-day impact of not being able to see well.”

Shown during the first ad break of Channel 4’s The Undateables on 18 September, the filters represented the effect macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetes, hemianopia and glaucoma have on sight. Each of the advertisers also donated 10% of their production fee to the RNIB in support of National Eye Health Week.

The positive feedback on social media ranged from comments in support of the awareness raised about the spectrum of different sight conditions, to people with sight loss expressing how the filters helped them explain what it looks like to see through their eyes.

Blind and partially sighted people don’t want to be treated differently. They want things to be accessible so they can join in the conversation that we all have about the latest shows and products

Martin Wingfield, RNIB

“It was incredibly heartwarming,” Wingfield recalls. “What was really nice from my point of view was that there were so many different things being said by completely different people.”

As well as introducing the filters, the adverts were replayed in the second ad break with full audio description, representing a clear shift in the way sighted people usually consume adverts. The area of audio description is a rich territory for creative directors and copywriters to take a typically functional element of advertising and add some creative brilliance, says Wingfield.

“There’s a creative element to this that I think creative agencies and media owners can harness, because good audio description isn’t just seen for blind and partially sighted people, it is for everyone,” he explains.

“Blind and partially sighted people don’t want to be treated differently. They want things to be accessible so they can join in the conversation that we all have about the latest shows and products. As a charity one of our missions is to promote accessibility and inclusivity for all and we hugely encourage brands to do the same. P&G are a good example in their efforts to audio describe their commercials and we’d like everyone to do that.”

Improving retail

Alongside improving the advertising experience, brands are increasingly thinking about how to enhance the retail experience for deaf consumers. A number of companies have already introduced sign language interpreting services online such as Lloyds Bank, Barclays, Sainsbury’s, NSPCC and BT.

In September, mobile network provider Three took this concept one stage further by launching a free in-store British Sign Language (BSL) service at four stores in London, Burnley, Cardiff and Liverpool.

Tying up with BSL interpreters Sign Solutions, Three’s new service enables deaf customers to communicate with in-store staff via a video connection on an iPad, which links them up with an interpreter. Interpreters then relay the customer’s questions to the members of staff, thereby enhancing the in-store experience.

The mobile provider initially launched video relay online three years ago, enabling customers to connect to a BSL interpreter using their webcam, tablet or mobile.

“The recent Three launch was widely commended and supported by deaf communities and picked up and publicised by many deaf news outlets, so as well as attracting many new customers, this will have had a very positive impact on brand image,” says Jackson.

“This also applies to deaf friendly steps such as subtitling videos, providing T-loops [the sound system used by hearing aids] when talking with customers/users and providing other means of contact than telephone.”

Technology is also likely to play a big part in improving the brand experience for blind and partially sighted consumers going forward, says Wingfield, who highlights in particular the rise of voice technology as a big breakthrough in improving accessibility.

Whatever route brands choose to connect, the RNIB advises companies not to forget that everyone in the UK with a form of sight loss is also a consumer.

“So from a brand point of view there’s an untapped opportunity,” Wingfield adds. “Everyone talks around inclusivity and accessibility, but consider people with a visual impairment by including audio description, clear and simple voice overs, as well as thinking about other forms of advertising such as customer facing websites, printed materials and giving people the options to use a more accessible format.”

Brands serious about inclusivity and representing the diversity of modern Britain will need to give real thought to how they engage deaf and blind consumers or risk alienating a large – and growing – section of the population.