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Disability in advertising shouldn't be something we only see once every four years

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red and a passionate advocate of the good that marketing can do, working on social purpose and behaviour change projects for the past 10 years.

The Paralympics is over for another four years and I for one am feeling a little bereft. And also a bit uncomfortable.

Seeing so many impressive athletes at the peak of fitness with skills that go beyond imagining was a stark reminder about how invisible people with disabilities can often be. It’s not just on the track and field where we saw greater representation than we are used to either; in the studio and on the airwaves, the world suddenly seemed like a much more inclusive place. Until the ads came on.

Channel 4’s brilliant coverage of the Games will undoubtedly have helped to change perceptions of people with disabilities and encourage other broadcasters around the world to prioritise and celebrate Paralympic sport. It recognised that its approach should be echoed in advertising too and so it threw down the gauntlet to creatives. ‘Superhumans wanted’ challenged brands to feature disability in their ads to win £1m of commercial airtime with the launch taking place during the Paralympic opening ceremony.

The winner, Maltesers, built on its ‘Look on the Light Side’ theme with characters taking a humorous look at awkward and embarrassing situations, all inspired by real-life stories from disabled people. It is a brilliant piece of work, and notably unique in terms of how front and centre the actors with disability are. But that can’t be it. Disability represented in the media needs to be as ubiquitous as it is in our society – according to Leonard Cheshire, one in six of us will be affected by a disability. This is not a minority issue.

A recent survey by Scope revealed that lack of understanding and negative attitudes about people with disability prevail: two thirds of people feel awkward around disability. These social attitudes are often rooted in a lack of knowledge, lack of familiarity and are perpetuated through ignorant stereotyping.

Policy changes are undoubtedly required to tackle some of the issues around disability but at the heart of this issue is a need for a major societal shift. A shift in which brands and media can play a huge part.

Whilst this is a complex issue, there is much that the creative industries can do, both to change attitudes and improve access to information. As business leaders, we all have a responsibility and the creative industries have a big part to play. It’s a moral duty to take active steps to tackle the airbrushing of disability and it’s also an economic one. With a current disabled population of well over 10 million people in Britain, it seems a bit odd that so many advertisers continue to ignore them.

Scope, which worked with Mars on the Maltesers commercial, has been doing some standout work of its own. Its brilliant and inspiring ‘EndTheAwkward’ campaign has set out on a mission to change attitudes. It is a campaign we can all relate to, using humour to help people get over their awkwardness around colleagues with disabilities and encouraging them not to HIDE from it (Say Hi, Introduce yourself, Don’t panic and End awkward).

Both of these are ads that have purposely set out to be about disability. But look for ads where a disabled person just happens to be part of the narrative because, well, they are part of society, and it highlights how wholesale the invisibility is.

It’s not just about representativeness either, it’s about making communications accessible.

Which means designing all our communication campaigns for everyone, regardless of disability. Visual, hearing or mobility challenges should be factored into all communications. Technology can be a massive enabler and we need to work collaboratively as agencies, brands and technologists to make sure we exploit it in the right ways. Our own recent experience of working with new technology, Signly, to embed sign language in creative assets, has highlighted that the means to be fully inclusive are available if you try hard enough.

While the glow of sporting success from 2016 still lingers we need to take action. We don’t need to wait for a competition (media, Olympic or otherwise) to make long overdue changes now. We need to commit to tackling what in some ways has been the forgotten aspect of the diversity agenda. On every brief, for every brand or issue we need to think about:

  • Are we reflecting all the people that are, or might be, in our customer base?
  • Will everyone that needs to engage with this message be able to and how can we make that easier?

And when you think about it in those terms, isn’t it just doing our jobs a little better?

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red