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‘Avoid charity or inspiration porn’: how to better represent disability in ads

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By Hannah Bowler | Journalist

July 1, 2022 | 6 min read

Channel 4 research recently exposed the UK’s woeful representation of disabled people in ads. In response, The Drum has questioned agency experts to find out how to better represent the 14 million people with disabilities living in the UK.

An audit of ads on British TV has revealed a meager 4% of commercials featured a disabled character in 2021, and just 1% had a disabled person cast in a lead role. While it showed a 1% improvement from 2020, disability diversity lagged far behind the progress made in representing other marginalized groups.

“The stats are sadly not shocking when you consider how difficult it is to recall mainstream brands using disabled talent in their ads. You can probably count them on a single hand,” says Bea Farmelo, senior strategist at AMV BBDO. AMV created the famous Maltesers ‘Look on the Light Side’ campaign, one of the few ads featuring a disabled lead people can recall.

Maltesers 'Look on the Lighter Side of Life' campaign

Maltesers’ ‘Look on the Lighter Side of Life’ campaign

So why is disability so overlooked in advertising?

In a Twitter thread Sarah Benson, former strategy director at Adam & Eve/DDB who worked on the famous We 15 campaign tackling this very subject matter, gave five reasons why the ad industry is failing the disabled population.

  1. Advertisers think disabled characters need to be written instead of just casting a disabled actor

  2. Agencies need to have the patience to cast disabled talent as it will take longer

  3. There are fewer disabled actors to cast because of barriers to employment

  4. Clients are scared of wrongful portrayals

  5. There’s an unconscious bias that there is an ‘ideal’ face of disability

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Farmelo adds: “Sadly, many people probably don’t even consider the need or importance of disabled representation in the same way as other protected characteristics. Perhaps it’s seen as too niche [or] not ‘relevant’ or right for the work, their brand or business.”

So what can agencies do?

Mike Alhadeff, also a senior strategist at AMV BBDO, advises creating a specialist division within the agency to focus on the agenda or getting help from consultants. In May AMV BBDO partnered with Open Inclusion to launch a disability inclusion service.

“Avoid the well-worn tropes like charity or inspiration porn,” he warns, “and consider how to naturally integrate disability into the story – it doesn’t always have to be the subject under the spotlight.”

The Drum tasked the disability campaign group Scope to generate a list of ads that have avoided the clichés. Among them were the Pantene ad with blind YouTuber Lucy Edwards, The National Lottery campaign that centered on Ekow Otoo, who has MS, and Sky Q’s Harris & The Robots ad.

Everyone that contributed to this article agreed that the fear of getting it wrong or offending people was a leading factor stopping agencies from executing campaigns featuring disabled people.

“The more confident and comfortable brands are around disability, the better representation will become,” says Dom Hyams, head of digital strategy at Purple Goat. He calls on brands to ask questions, even if they are the wrong ones. “It would be counterintuitive to berate them for not being perfect.”

Purple Goat is a disability-led influencer and marketing agency. Hyams says: “We make sure that they understand straight away that we are there to help them be better, rather than rap them on the knuckles when they do something incorrectly.

“If they use the wrong terminology then we tell them, but it’s not a deal-breaker because they are coming from a place of lack of understanding or ignorance and it’s our job to help them to learn.”

Advertisers often “shortcut” disability representation by casting someone who has a physical impairment, despite 80% of disabilities being hidden. This is supported by Channel 4’s research, which showed mobility impairments were the most common disability, shown in 19% of ads, followed by limb differences at 8%, whereas just 2% showed mental health on screen and 1% of ads depicted neurodiversity.

“If you spoke to people in the community, it would be very clear and quick how you could portray that [hidden disability] in ads,” Hyams says. He pointed to examples like visual alarms for deaf or hard-of-hearing people, or vibrating pillows that would have a wire coming out. He says those “little moments” don’t need to be overt. but people from the community will notice them and feel represented. “That will mean a lot to them.”

Josh Loebner, global head of inclusive design at Wunderman Thompson, tells advertisers to include disability inclusivity into every stage of the creative process from the brief all the way through to production, post, media and metrics.

Often the biggest way brands trip up in this space is not making the ads themselves accessible, even after trying to cast disabled talent. Chi Chi London recently fell foul of this by making its campaign activation inaccessible after casting a line-up of disabled models. “If TV ads include people with disabilities, they need to be accessible,” Loebner says. “Consider the entire disabled customer journey, and how the TV ad fits into accessible and inclusive omnichannel and integrated marketing communications.”

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