The advertising industry has long been accused of falling short when it comes to diversity. While pilloried for its lack of gender and ethnic diversity within its agencies and in its ads, the industry is also heavily criticised for its lack of authentic representation and portrayal of disabled people in its advertising. The statistics are stark and make grim reading for the industry: just four per cent of ads feature disabled people, despite over 14m disabled people living in the UK, according to a Channel 4 report from last year.
Furthermore, the report found that just one per cent of TV adverts feature disabled people playing lead roles, highlighting a missed opportunity to embrace the opportunity to represent and connect with disabled people. While some brands are tacking this shortfall, amid a surge in purpose-driven advertising, experts say the industry stands guilty of portraying disabled people in a reductive, stereotypical and often tokenistic fashion. Patrick Kane, global growth manager, Wunderman Thompson UK, said: "Historically, the main occasions that disabled people would be featured in advertisements would be to invoke pity or sympathy, in what was labelled a 'heart-warming' moment purely at the expense of the disabled person portrayed. "This is known as 'inspiration porn', and the problem extends far beyond advertising."
Brands still see disabled as "tick-book" exercise
Sharon Flaherty, CEO of creative agency, Folk, said she remembers when she worked brand-side and the then marketing director ensured there was a black woman and a disabled woman in an advert. Flaherty said: "It was well-meaning and aiming for broader representation but I don't think we have got past the tick-box approach to representation yet. "We need authentic representation of disabled people, including them in the process so we get it right and don't make decisions based on lived experience we don't have." Michael Alhadeff, senior strategist, AMV BBDO, said he believes representation of disabled people in advertising has improved, but says from a low bar. Alhadeff said: "I joined the industry in 2013, and so that was literally just after the Paralympic Games and Channel 4's Superhumans.
Zero ads featuring disabled people before 2012
"That's when it really kicked off. Before 2012, it was literally zero. So we've kind of gone from zero to 60 I guess. "And Channel 4 was a big part of that. But I feel like, more recently, if you look at mainstream UK brands." He cites Tesco, Virgin Media and McCain as examples of brands which have been inclusive of the disabled in their advertising. "But obviously if you look at the data, it will still say there is quite a lot of catching up to do," he adds.
Purpose-driven campaigns driver of change
Simon Usifo, president and MD, 72andSunny Amsterdam, says the representation of disabled people has "slightly improved", citing the increase of purpose-driven campaign as the driver. However, Usifo notes that ads are "still tied to a specific narrative about disabled people in the context of a very specific campaign around disabilities". He adds: "What we do need to see much more though is disabled people being part of storytelling that is not about their disability specifically. Plus the range of disabilities featured needs to improve." Kane cites a handful of "authentic " campaigns but says it's not enough. Kane says: "We now see brilliant work such as Degree Inclusive and Channel 4's Paralympics campaigns as examples of how this work can be done authentically and correctly, but unfortunately these aren't as common as they could be."
Ads featuring disabled "inauthentic"
Kurt Yaeger, an actor, who is also an advocate on disability agrees with Usifo. Yaeger says much of the advertising is inauthentic and also focuses on a disabled person's disability, instead of them just living their lives along with everyone else. Flaherty says one of the reasons disabled people are underrepresented in ads is partly due to brands' fear of getting it wrong, which is a "major barrier to progress".
Brands fear getting it wrong
Flaherty said: "People aren't afraid to call out brands for tokenism or getting it wrong and this puts brands under increased pressure but this fear is hindering progress. "Brands need to engage with disabled people and people from underrepresented backgrounds, ask questions and involve them in the process to create authentic work and to move past this fear or we will never improve the dismal statistics of only 4% of ads showing disabled people." Alhadeff says brands are suffering from an "Innocence ignorance" that they might get it wrong. He says: "In today's world, with social media, there's always the danger of a backlash. I feel like clients are quite nervous that if they get it wrong, they'll quickly be found out. "And then you have the whole risk around cancel culture and being cancelled as a brand. "There's more and more risk that if you get anything wrong, there will be an immediate reaction, which I think can be quite hard to navigate if you're a brand or a client." Yaeger said that disability in advertising along with film and TV is due to the lack of disabled people employed within creative industries.
Call to creative industries to employ more disabled
Yaeger said: "We're underrepresented on camera at astronomical levels because we are an afterthought in the hiring practice for positions that control marketing and advertising at companies. It's not an opinion, it's a fact. "Take the total number of ad executives, marketing executives, so on, and divide that by the number of execs with disabilities in those positions and it will be less than .0005 or .05 per cent. That's why." Usifo agrees, saying that there is a need for more disabled people in leadership positions and in creative roles. He adds: "This will naturally provide organizations with the confidence and the knowledge to be trailblazers able to pioneer a new way of storytelling and showing empathy for this huge range of people and consumers who are currently being ignored."
Flaherty said: "Where a handful of brands have attempted to include disabled people in their marketing communications, many have been criticised for celebratory 'inspiration porn', which objectifies and demoralises disabled people through sentimentality or pity while glazing over real issues relating to inclusion and accessibility. Alhadeff said: "I guess a personal favourite is the Virgin Media ad. It's a cute story about two teenagers connecting over the internet, and they end up hooking up. It's a romantic story and it's nice because the disability isn't signposted, he just happens to be in a wheelchair. It feels very natural and very authentic. "The ad that everyone's talking about at the moment is the new work for Apple, which is a really cool ad that shows all the ways that Apple is building assistive features into their phones, which is a really good example." Usifo says: "Nike has done quite a few ads that are seen as pretty strong by the community, because they prove a level of insights and empathy that is only possible if disabled people have been involved from the beginning to the end. "However it still remains an example in which the context of disabled people is their disability, which is fine, but should be the only scenarios in which disability is being featured.
Conversation needs to change
Kane says: "For the disabled community, there are both societal and industry specific reasons why they have currently been so underrepresented. From a societal perspective, disability has long been seen as undesirable and even shame worthy. "As a triple amputee, I have previously felt pressure to try to blend in at the cost of my own ability.But with the current overlap between disability and technology, and a better understanding of how we all benefit from authentic inclusive experiences, I believe this is changing on a societal scale. Kane says he is optimistic about the future. Kane said: "I am optimistic that our society is moving towards a healthier and more empathetic perception of disability and ability, and while it would be fantastic to see more adverts featuring products for disabled people, I think the true litmus test for change will be in the percentage of adverts we see for brands and services that have nothing to do with ability. "This will prove whether we see as human beings, or if we still cannot look past a loss of limb or a condition. " Flaherty said: "As an industry we need to be supporting people from underrepresented backgrounds to progress careers in the marketing and communications fields – this visibility is key. "In fact, just nine per cent of talent in the advertising sector is disabled compared to 20 per cent of the working population and this needs to be addressed (All In Report, 2021). "Disabled communications professionals are few and far between. Like all minorities - and disabled people are the largest - they like and expect to be seen and heard. This is how we start to change the conversation.
Absence of disabled creatives
Alhadeff said: "I feel like we've kind of cracked representation, there's lots of examples. Now I think the industry needs to focus on talent, and particularly creative talent. Because getting a creative job is the hardest in the industry, right? "And I haven't come across many disabled creatives at all. Obviously, representation can always be improved, but now it's about the other side of the coin, and getting the right people in the building." Usifo said: We need to normalize having disabled people involved across all lines of business and across entire organizations. It's a long way to go and I am far from being happy with what we are doing ourselves as an agency. "However, working with Hollywood actor and writer Kurt Yaeger as a consultant has helped us massively identify the areas where we need improving. "Whether it's about looking at our supply chain or partner roster in order to work predominantly with companies and productions that are driving disability inclusion or if it's about including a disability perspective systematically into the creative process. "There are plenty of areas for us to improve on continuously and we're working on it. I believe disability inclusion should become a standard topic for each agency and needs to be reflected across the entire organization and corporate culture.
Yaeger said: "I'd love to see more companies hiring employees with disabilities, so they learn from the inside that disabled people are living in a normal world, having normal lives, and the majority of their time is not focused on their disability, it's focused on what we all focus on: work, love, safety, security, friendship and enjoyment of life itself."