Post Paralympics, brands still failing to represent disabled consumers, despite £200bn spending power

Vogue Brazil came under fire for turning models into amputees

Despite the Paralympics bringing disability to the fore, disabled people are still not represented in marketing and media, with brands all too often leaning on elitist assumptions or even missing the point entirely by using able-bodied models (thanks, Vogue Brazil). Yet by failing to engage the spending power of disabled consumers, it’s brands who will miss out.

During the summer of 2012 the British public was riding a wave of positivity around the Paralympics, which had returned to its ancestral home in the UK. The event sparked a change in perception of people with a disability and brands began to realise the opportunity of representing and including disabled people in their advertising.

The Paralympics also led to a rise in popularity of disabled sports and a year after the games the number of members of Boccia England (a disability sport that tests muscle control and accuracy) rose by 60 per cent, while wheelchair basketball saw a 25 per cent increase at club level across the UK, with 145 new clubs opening their doors.

Last month, in the run up to this year’s Paralympic Games in Rio, Andrew Douglass, founder of experiential agency Innovision, held the world’s first inclusive disability sporting event named Parallel. Sponsored by Barclays and supported by Paralympian Sophia Warner, the event was designed to encourage first-timers and athletes alike to come together and compete in a push/run event in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Parallel worked with creative agency Clinic to design the branding and communications, which presented a unique challenge to the agency in terms of language and tone of voice. “What is really interesting about getting under the skin of disability is that it’s about making sure the communications are totally relevant to them,” says Zoe Anderson, account director, Clinic. “It’s about making sure that people don’t come across as looking vulnerable, it’s about making sure that people come across as looking strong and confident but not powerful, because where we are for the communications for Parallel is about grass roots. We wanted to encourage people who had never even got off the sofa to come along and see what it is about and to try and do something because you might enjoy it and it could lead to something else.”

While Channel 4’s winning coverage of the London Paralympics and its recent ‘We’re the Superhumans’ campaign were successful in capturing the zeitgeist and drumming up awareness of disability sporting events, Clinic purposefully strayed away from using any elitist language within the Parallel branding to appeal to the disabled community more widely. “The David Weirs [British Paralympic wheelchair athlete] of this world are incredible but in real life he is a formidable person. He’s muscular and really fit but most people aren’t – they are just like you and me but they may feel that they want to do something.”

Parallel provided event sponsor Barclays with the opportunity to align its beliefs around better access with the creation of grassroots sports for disabled people. The bank has been exploring better access, looking at how it can harness and leverage digital technology to transform the quality of services it provides.

So far Barclays has delivered instant sign language translation via iPad, high visibility debit cards and voice and finger print biometrics to access services. It has also launched a platform to inspire other businesses to become more accessible.

“I can see that accessibility is moving higher up the agenda of brands and more people with disabilities are starting to appear in advertising, which must be a positive sign,” says Elaine Draper, director of accessibility and inclusion at Barclays. “However the pace and consistency of service improvements is relatively slow.”

Barclays isn’t the only brand to recognise that it needs to do more to better represent disabled consumers, of which there are 12.9 million in the UK, wielding a combined spending power of over £200bn each year. And while some have missed the mark completely, such as Vogue Brazil featuring able-bodied models with their limbs removed using Photoshop (pictured), other brands are getting it right.

In February this year ticketing agent The Ticket Factory titivated its booking system and integrated it with disability information card Access Card to allow disabled people to purchase tickets online for its venues the Barclaycard Arena and Genting Arena. Previously disabled customers had to call a separate line to explain their specific requirements to an operator.

The power of social media led Marks & Spencer to listen to its consumers’ needs and the brand responded by introducing a line of nappies for older disabled children after parents were forced to buy adult nappies at a more expensive price point. M&S has also introduced a small clothing line with products tailored for older disabled children with poppers so that they can be easily changed in to and out of and fit more comfortably. Meanwhile, in the transport space, Uber launched UberAssist in the UK, a service that allows disabled passengers to call specially trained drivers.

While such examples are a step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done if advertisers wish to stay relevant, according to Richard Lane, head of digital and marketing at disability charity Scope, who believes brands on the whole are missing a trick.

“There is a huge segment of the market that brands seem to be missing out on and that’s something that they need to address if they want to remain relevant going forward. Include disabled people in your adverts and marketing. There are a huge number of customers who should expect to see their lives represented on TV and in advertising in the same way anyone else does. We saw that brands got this with gay people and have started to include them proactively in their advertising and are now targeting a significant number of consumers.”

Inspirational porn

However, brands should be wary of “tokenistically” using a disabled person in their advertising and should instead include them incidentally, as well as exercising caution when it comes to using words such as ‘brave’ and ‘inspiring’, warns Lane.

“You often seen brands falling into that ‘inspirational porn’ sort of stuff where you are so brave because you are taking part in a sporting event. In reality people just want to take part and have fun and do a bit of sport like anyone; it’s not brave, and that is the narrative that we hear a lot of. People find it patronising, which is completely understandable.”

Mars UK has recently been praised for its diversity following its recent Maltesers ad campaign, which won Channel 4’s ‘Superhumans Wanted’ competition. The broadcaster offered brands and advertisers the chance to win £1m of its airtime to develop a creative idea that put disability and diversity at the heart. The series of ads were inspired by real-life stories from disabled people, and celebrated universally awkward situations, such as embarrassing moments with a new boyfriend.

Mars hopes that by approaching its advertising through the lens of diversity it will be able to create more effective adverts, and is considering using one of its chocolate brands as a platform for disability.

“These Maltesers adverts are very much a first step [to becoming more diverse],” says Michele Oliver, vice-president of marketing at Mars Chocolate UK. “One of the things we are looking at is our casting for all of our future adverts in the UK, ensuring that when we cast for a main character we are looking at a diverse range of options, whether that is ethnicity, disability, or the nature of the families that we show.”

It’s clear that to instigate real change and inject diversity into advertising and media, the industry needs to work collectively to ensure all members of the public are represented fairly. One action that Lane believes will help ring the changes is for big businesses to create internal networks for disabled employees to get them involved in the same way that large organisations have established LGBT and black and minority network groups to consult with on various things brands are doing.

“It shouldn’t just be about hiring an ad agency to put a disabled person in your advertising; it should be a whole commitment as a brand to supporting disabled people.”

This article was originally published in 29 September issue of The Drum

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