Using Advertising To Engage, Not Alienate, Consumers With Disabilities

Sign that says, "Waiting Room For Colored Only. By Order, Police Department."
Photo courtesy of

See the sign? As soon as I absorbed the meaning of this sign, I came across this thought-provoking quote in Bob Greene’s Sunday article on “If you’re not 50 years old yet, chances are pretty good that you never saw [this sign] in a public place.” Several decades ago, signs like “Colored Only” or “Waiting Room For Whites Only” were so commonplace that they were considered, in many Americans’ eyes, a normal, typical part of the nation’s landscape. Today, this story about a whites-only swimming pool sign in Cincinnati shocks and angers most people, and becomes a lead story on major media channels. It speaks volumes about how cultural norms have changed in the decades since Brown v. Board of Education and Martin Luther King, Jr. brought racial justice to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. For people with disabilities, we could be seeing the same cultural shift in society’s perceptions of this demographic and its contributions to society. To accelerate this shift, advertising has a crucial role to play in redefining longstanding cultural perceptions of people with disabilities.

In 2007, people with disabilities in the United States held an estimated $220 billion in discretionary income, or 13% of the U.S. total of $1.7 trillion. Yet “accepted” norms that cast this group in a negative light are still being observed in some pockets of American culture. This feeds into businesses’ perceptions that underestimate the economic value of this demographic.

As with the African-American population, efforts to redefine cultural perceptions of people with disabilities in more positive terms will benefit businesses seeking to tap the huge economic potential of this large demographic. And that would be a good thing for people with disabilities: they would have substantially more access to the products and services that are marketed and sold to the general population, and play a more active role in designing better products that accommodate their disabilities. And, ultimately, be more willing to pay for them.

As norms shifted over the decades in the direction of greater inclusion of African-Americans into the normal cultural discourse of this country, advertising messages helped advance this trend. So although racism still exists, most people speak out about racism in a way that serves to minimize the hateful messages coming from those who do not recognize or appreciate the basic civil rights of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and other non-whites. These minorities collectively represent 35% of the U.S. population today, and in 2009, nearly 49% of babies born in the United States were non-white – a trend that could mean a “majority of minorities” in this country by 2050. Create an advertisement that is not inclusive of minority populations, and you risk alienating up to 50% of your target market.

Consider these three advertisements below, featuring African-Americans:

Three advertisements: Cream of Wheat ad pre-1950, Pepsi ad in the 1960s, and a 2000's ad.

The Cream of Wheat advertisement on the left was produced sometime before 1950 – a time when stereotypes casting African-Americans in an unflattering light were fairly common in advertising. In the 1940s, Walter Mack, the president of Pepsi-Cola, was not impressed with the way African-Americans were portrayed in his company’s advertising, so he rolled out advertisements which were more respectful of this demographic. Although he left Pepsi-Cola in 1950 under controversy, he helped pave way for advertisements like the second one above, from the 1960s. The third advertisement is from the last few years, and shows how far the advertising industry has come along in casting African-Americans in more “normal” environments.

In 2009, an Utah driving safety organization published the advertisement below to warn drivers of the dangers of texting or drinking while driving. The person in the ad is the real thing: he suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident and now uses a wheelchair.

A person sitting in a wheelchair, looking down, and large text, "Drive stupid and score some kickin' new wheels." (Rest of text in blockquote in article)

In the small print of this ad:

Nothing’s cooler than the day you get your driver’s license. But as soon as you start driving stupid, it’s not so cool anymore. Texting, using your iPod, racing, thay all fall under the category of stupid. And dangerous. So before you get behind the wheel and try to prove how cool you are, here’s a little harsh reality: Nothing kills more Utah teens than auto crashes. Not fazed? Okay, how does the thought of spending the rest of your life in wheelchair grab you? Look, every year far too many Utah teens go from cool to crippled in a blink of an eye. So if you are one of those drivers who think they have something to prove, you can start shopping for your wheelchair now. And hey, if you think that‘s harsh, wait until the day you roll it into school.

The person in the wheelchair met a fate that no one wants, as we all agree. Yet in the advertisement’s text are some code words: “go from cool to crippled in the blink of an eye,” or “wait until the day you roll it into school.” In other words, being a person with a disability is less cool than one without.

Contrast the Utah driving safety ad with this Nike advertisement of world record Paralympic holder Oscar Pistorius (read full text of ad here):

Oscar Pistorius advertisement for Nike

The advertisement speaks to Pistorius as a person. Not someone with a disability, or an athlete, but as a human, real person.

As the Nike and Pepsi posters above demonstrate, we as a society today are not ready to return to the times of the Cream of Wheat ad. More businesses today understand the value of an advertisement that does not alienate, but engages and excites a large demographic.

When people with disabilities are becoming a larger group relative to the population of the United States – as the huge baby boomer generation hits retirement age – they are going to have a greater role in the national dialogue. By placing advertisements which are inclusive of people with disabilities, preferably without discussion (as this month’s Target ad demonstrated), this market will not only be culturally engaged, but motivated to contribute with their wallets. Businesses that recognize this early on reap the rewards of including this large demographic – and remain competitive in an U.S. economy that will be weighed down by the pressures of increased Social Security payouts, higher health care expenses, and changing preferences of an increasingly older population.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.