Hey, That Limb Is Missing! Debunking Disability Stereotypes In Advertising

Model Tanja Kiewitz wearing a bra and showing her handless left arm.
Translation: "Look me in the eyes. I said, my eyes."

In advertising, the inclusion of people with disabilities is a double-edged sword: is it intended to highlight the disability, or the person, or both? If the disability is highlighted, it is usually because the business is selling products that accommodate the disability. For companies that do not directly sell to people with disabilities, utilizing a person with a disability in an advertisement is a delicate exercise, because popular culture in America today tends to exclude people with disabilities from its meme. The good news: this is not the 1950’s, as people today are more aware of the economic power and influence of people with disabilities and their contributions to society. Yet if advertising practices today are any indication, people with disabilities still have a long way to go to be considered an integral part of popular culture. In a country where almost 20% of the population has a disability, this is a big slice of American society we are missing out on.

Two weeks ago, Target announced a special post-Christmas sale for kids’ t-shirts ($5 each!) and kids’ pants ($7 each!), through this advertisement on its website. It was just like any other promotion peddled by one of the United States’s largest department stores. As with most retailers recovering from the Christmas shopping season, Target needed to clear out its inventory, and the $5 and $7 sales were meant to grab the attention of consumers and encourage them to buy clothes for their kids.

Rick Smith noticed something about this advertisement, only because of his own one-year-old son, who has Down syndrome. On the left side of the Target advertisement was a blond-haired kid wearing an orange- and brown-colored long-sleeve shirt. If you saw this kid and did not think twice, you were probably like most others who were interested in the shirt he wore and whether they should buy it from Target.

A Target sale advertisement for kids' apparel showing four children, including one with Down syndrome
This ad needs no caption.

Target did not highlight the fact that Ryan Langston – the name of the kid in the orange shirt – has Down syndrome. He has some of the classic physical features of this condition, but that was not the point of the advertisement. All Target was doing was selling kid’s apparel, and using cute kids to send the message. They did not even announce the kid in any of its press releases.

Thrilled about the non-announcement of Ryan and his disability, Rick Smith wrote about Target’s advertisement on his blog, Noah’s Dad. Disability advocates and others saw his post, and in a matter of hours it went viral. Rick told me, two days after his post, of his amazement at finding over 8,000 likes on his blog post (it is now over 21,000 as of this writing).

The reaction was huge, and almost uniformly positive. It was inclusive advertising, done in a powerful and unobtrusive way that delivered plenty of positive brand equity to Target.

A bearded man, and a caption next to him: "Men never listen. Still, it's nice to know they can."
A New Zealand advertisement for Widex Hearing Aids.

People with disabilities – whether they are mature consumers with a disability, or people with lifelong disabilities – have historically expressed their displeasure over how their disability is portrayed (or not portrayed) in advertising, as cited in this 2011 AT Kearney report. The best, most polished advertisements intentionally highlighting a person’s disability are often produced by companies that develop products and services specifically geared toward that disability. Otherwise, when a business pushes a person with a wheelchair on stage and talks about how he “persevered” in the face of obstacles, what message is the business trying to convey? How does it relate to the product or service the business is selling?

Yes, advertising is meant to be aspirational. But when a 2000 Super Bowl advertisement by Nuveen Investments shows Christopher Reeve walking out of his chair, the attempt at inspiring its audience tends to backfire, delivering mixed messages. People with disabilities, like everyone else, have their own hopes, goals and ideals, which may or may not include mitigating their own disability. They work hard and seek inspiration from a variety of sources, including advertisements, TV shows, and other elements of pop culture. So while their abled peers can find inspiration and fascination with an advertisement depicting a climber on two prosthetic legs conquering Mount Everest, people with disabilities may not necessarily share the same sentiment. They want to be seen for who they are, not for what they have (or don’t have). This 2010 advertisement by a Belgian disability organization encapsulates what many people with disabilities desire: to be accepted for who they are. In this advertisement, model Tanja Kiewitz says, “Look into my eyes. I said, my eyes.”

An unfortunate feature of American popular culture is that it is not always inclusive of people with disabilities. Although technology has helped people with disabilities achieve great strides in their quality of life and become more fully integrated into American society, advertisers still tend to highlight the perfect physical ideal as a way to effectively convey an intended message. If the business’s intended market includes the 54 million Americans with disabilities, then devising the right message is critical. If the business tries to highlight a person’s disability in its advertisements, it has to give a very good reason for doing so. Otherwise, the person’s disability is seen as separating him/her from everyone else, and communicates to the audience that this person is different. That in turn perpetuates persistent stereotypes about people with disabilities.

Oscar Pistorius advertisement for Nike
At least this ad for Nike helps sell apparel for the company.

People with disabilities are more integrated into society than ever before because of technology. This means potentially better job opportunities for them, translating into more revenue for businesses that do the right kind of advertising to this market. Unemployment among people with disabilities is still unacceptably high at 13%-15% versus the national average of 9%. One reason for this consistently high rate of unemployment is the existence of attitudinal barriers among employers that make it difficult for workers with disabilities to be hired. This is perpetuated by the subconscious language of exclusion of disabilities in advertising, which still unfortunately reflects today’s popular culture.

Inclusion can send a completely different message to the intended audience, and influence how advertisers utilize people with disabilities in their media. By changing the advertising narrative to one where people in the advertisements are seen for who they are, not what they have (or don’t have), this can have a powerful impact on attitudinal perceptions of people with disabilities, and help rewrite the cultural meme for this demographic.

Advertising has historically been the province of 20- and 30-somethings, both in the advertising sector and the audiences targeted by advertisements. Younger consumers represent very high customer lifetime value, because they will be around long after the baby boomers die off. From a pure economic perspective, this is understandable. Yet before that happens, there will be at least two decades of tremendous pressure on businesses to meet the needs of people with disabilities, as the dialogue on health care, accessibility and Social Security generated by aging baby boomers becomes ever more urgent. Young customers today will listen to this dialogue with interest and perhaps trepidation, because they will eventually experience a disability as they get older.

So why not create a blueprint for a marketing strategy that keeps these customers loyal to your business by adapting to their changing life needs, as they move from their college years through middle age and eventually to retirement?

By rewriting the rules of American popular culture to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, advertising can redefine how people with disabilities are perceived. In my article last week, I highlighted this economic model of disability as a framework for looking at a person with a disability in the context of society. We cannot pigeonhole disability into something that should be mitigated or corrected (the medical model), or one that must always be accommodated by law (the social model). They both miss the point of the person with the disability: he/she is a person like anyone else, with his/her unique personalities, characteristics, and needs. The sooner advertisers recognize that almost 20% of America is not part of today’s cultural meme, the more they can work to unlock the economic value of this consistently overlooked demographic.

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