Normalizing Disability in Advertising

This post was originally published on The Voice of AAF DC on December 3, 2018.

December 3 marks the annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This year’s themes are empowering people with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.

One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. But if you judged life by the world of advertising, you might conclude that disabled people are a societal rarity. So rare that advertisers feel the need to airbrush able-bodied models to look like amputees. Yes, that really happened.

The ethical responsibility of advertisers — especially during a paradigm shift that places the consumer at the center of media — is to provide content that fulfills the marketing agenda, without alienating, disrespecting, or deceiving any members of the intended or unintended audience. But we all know that every brand doesn’t deliver on that responsibility. Apart from when ads speak specifically about disability, disabled people are overwhelmingly absent from the narrative.

Breaking down barriers

Research conducted by the United Kingdom media agency UM discovered that while consumers wanted to see more people with disabilities in advertising, some 62% of respondents honestly admitted to feeling “uncomfortable” when they did see it. Also, 43% agreed that advertisers who showed people with disabilities risked making the ads “unappealing to people,” while 34% said that people with physical disabilities are “not attractive.” So how can advertisers go about breaking the taboo and being more representative?

The marketing and advertising industries have a chance to help break down social stigmas around disability by making it more visible. To change perceptions and promote progression, ads need to normalize disability — by plugging the rich, everyday lives that disabled people live beyond their disability.

Showing the world as it is

The under-representation of disabled people in advertising is largely due to the lack of diversity in creative roles. If more disabled people were employed as creative directors, copywriters, graphic designers, etc., we’d start to see a natural shift towards a more authentic portrayal.

Representing people with disabilities could be the final frontier in diversifying advertising, with more brands having already moved towards LGBTQ+ inclusion (Coca-Cola’s ‘Pool Boy’) and aiming at different types of families (multicultural and single dads, etc.).

Aside from being the right thing to do, diversity in ads has the potential to generate tangible benefits. Brands are undoubtedly leaving money on the table by not appealing to a wider range of audiences. Striking a chord with consumers is no longer about serving them images of perfection, since social media has helped to change how people view images. People with disabilities, as both recipients and agents of change, can fast-track the process towards truly inclusive advertising.

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