Disability and Advertising

Advertisements have tended to show non-disabled perfection. This excerpt from ADText, a major open-access advertising textbook, covers common representations of disability in advertising. There are positive signs of change, but the advertising industry still needs to present more positive and fair treatments of people with disabilities.

This Australian Public Service Announcement Asks Readers to Question Their Pre-Conceived Notions about People with Disabilities. In It a Young Woman of Color Wears Hip Hop Clothes and Holds a Boom Box. The Tag Line Says “Don’t DIS My ABILITY,” and Identifies Her as “Uma, 24, Recreation Officer, Dancer, Blind.”

People would be sorely disappointed if they hoped to look to advertising for a complete snapshot of a society’s people at a given moment in time. Advertising tends to present a very limited sample of the human population. Rather than being a perfect reflection of society, advertising historian Roland Marchand commented that advertising could be seen as a funhouse mirror. It is selective in who it represents. It often distorts who is represented. And it has historically been delayed in representing changes in society and culture for fear of “rocking the boat” too much and thus alienating consumers. In his BBC television series Ways of Seeing, British art historian and critic John Berger agrees and reminds that advertising “proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. . .  [It] persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable.” Therefore, when it comes to looking at the types of people included in advertising representations, a trend emerges: mostly attractive people with flawless bodies populate the world of advertising.

Given advertisers’ wish to manufacture envy among consumers to become like those represented in their images, it should come as no surprise that advertising has tended to use people of a particular body type found attractive at a given moment in time. Such desirability builds agreeable associations with the product, service, or idea they are selling. Many critiques of advertising often center on the use of images of unattainable human physical perfection (often made through photo manipulation), but the fact that advertising’s default ideal body is non-disabled is often not discussed as much, especially outside the field of disability studies. Physical features and abilities that differ from “the norm” are typically not represented in advertising and have been left out regularly in discussions of advertising’s problematic representations of people. Although they are tremendously important, there is a tendency to focus on limited and troubling representations based on class, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality. Advertising’s focus on non-disabled people is therefore taken for granted because it is the image being normalized. As British nursing researcher Alex McClimens notes in an article in the journal Learning Disability Practice, non-disabled bodies are taken for granted in the world of advertising: “In its portrayals of the human species, advertising tends to approximate physical perfection, with the implicit promise that you too can look like this if only you would buy product X. It is a lie of course but, like all the best lies, it is generally accepted as true.”

People’s physicality and abilities are an important part of their identity that is worthy of examination in advertising. As American communication studies scholar Beth Haller explains in her 2010 book Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media,

Media depictions help us understand the media’s role in “constructing” people with disabilities as different and their role in framing many types of people who may not fit with “mainstream” constructions. These media images affect society as a whole, but they also have implications for the self-concept of people with disabilities themselves.

As will be discussed in detail in this article, when disabilities or physical “limitations” do appear in advertising, they are often done in a way that tries to invoke pity, exaggerated heroic inspiration, or a humorous curiosity bordering on fetishization. Rarely are people with disabilities showcased with many dimensions beyond their disability; further, they are usually not presented as sexually desirable beings.

Therefore, to denaturalize advertising’s tendency to sell physical perfection and able-embodiment as the ideal, this article presents common representations of disability in advertising as well as the ways in which advertisers and marketers can and should consider disability more carefully in their work. The article concludes by offering positive signs of change in representing and including people with disabilities in advertising in fair and more respectful ways. It should be noted that because of the diversity of various abilities, an analysis of how all disabilities are represented in advertising was not possible in this article. However, many efforts were made to represent as many abilities as possible.

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Disability’s Absence in Advertising and Media

According to the Pew Research Institute in 2017, about 12.6% of the American population reports being disabled, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2019 that the proportion of Americans with disabilities is closer to 26%. Although definitions and measures of disability are difficult to standardize, the World Health Organization estimated in 2019 that about 15.3% of the world’s population is disabled. In a 2012 content analysis of primetime US television commercials in Disability Studies Quarterly, only 1.7% of advertisements integrated disabled characters. In the Ford Foundation’s broader study of representations of disability in American media, similar statistics were found by other sources: GLAAD observed that only 2.1% of primetime broadcast TV series had regular characters with disabilities and an Annenberg study found that only 2.5% of the 100 top-grossing movies between 2006 and 2016 depicted characters with disabilities. Such a dearth of representations of disability would lead one to wonder why advertising and media representations present people with disabilities much less than the actual proportion of people with disabilities in everyday life. Some disability scholars have found that media and advertising producers have historically claimed that images of disability make people feel uncomfortable or are not profitable. However, others have debunked these assumptions. In one experimental study in 2001 in Disability Studies Quarterly, people responded in the same way to disability and non-disability ads, so the small number of depictions of people with disabilities in advertising could be more of a question of institutional will on the part of advertisers and media producers, as well as a limited number of people with disabilities working in the advertising and media industries.

So when disability is represented in advertising, what has been the nature of these representations? What do they say about people with disabilities? As British media studies scholar Shani Orgad notes in her book Media Representation and the Global Imagination, today is an age of new media visibility where representation in media equals an acknowledgment of existence of the people who are represented. With so few people with disabilities showing up in advertising, and the power of advertising to impact who and what is seen as desirable, the ways advertising has represented disability provide insights into society’s thoughts about, concern for, and inclusion of people with disabilities.

Representing Disability in Advertising

In the United States, before the 1980s, there were limited representations of disability in advertising beyond often pity-laden calls for charitable donations, such as appeals by wounded soldiers to support US War Bonds during World War II, the March of Dimes’ fight against polio, and American actor Jerry Lewis’ annual telethon raising money for muscular dystrophy.

This 1944 Revere Copper and Brass, Inc., Ad Uses Pity toward a Soldier to Represent Disability and Encourage People to Buy War Bonds Supporting the United States’ Efforts in World War II. The Tagline Reads “You’ve Got to Give Up Something” and Next to the Photo of a Soldier on Crutches, His Right Foot Amputated, Is Text from His Point of View that Shells Are Expensive, the “Japs” are Tough and Stopping Them is Worth Any Price, in His Case, His Foot.

A Muscular Dystrophy Association of America Ad (circa Late 1960s) Uses Pity, Fear, and the Language of Victimization to Encourage Donations for the Foundation Tied to Popular American Actor Jerry Lewis. Animated Spot Shows an Egg Falling from a Nest to Hit a Caveman on the Head. The Egg Hatches into a Bird. The Caveman Attempts to Fly Like the Bird, Unsuccessfully, by Flapping His Arms. Modern Man Proceeds to Develop Technology in Stages: First the Hot Air Balloon, then the Biplane, the Jet, the Rocket, and even the Submarine. Muscular Dystrophy Is Illustrated Invading the Body and Damaging Muscles. Scientific Beakers and Laboratory Equipment Appear with the Word “Hope” Getting Increasingly Larger on the Screen. A Doorbell and the Badge Worn by Door-To-Door Volunteers Are Shown. The Doorbell Morphs into a Dollar Bill. Shapes Transform into a Wagon Wheel, Which Turns into the Wheel on a Wheelchair with the Words “Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America.” Children’s Games Such as Hopscotch Are Shown. The Blocks Are Shown Crashing Down, as the Spinning Wheel of the Wheelchair Appears Again.

Ads more favorably representing the disabled emerged in the 1980s. A 1984 Levi’s 501 Jeans ad is often cited as the first televised ad with a disabled man using a wheelchair popping a “wheelie” as he goes down a boardwalk with an able-bodied woman. In 1986, McDonald’s aired its “Silent Persuasion” ad showcasing a deaf man convincing his deaf woman friend to go to McDonald’s using sign language.

A 1984 Levi’s 501 Blues Television Ad Shows a Disabled Man Popping a “Wheelie” While Going Down a Boardwalk with a Jogging Woman. The Ad Shows a Montage of People of Different Genders and Races Expressing Their Individuality While Playing Basketball, Jumping Rope, Playing and Socializing in Different Ways; Meanwhile a Jingle Extols 501 Blue Jeans, Which Shrink to Provide a Unique Fit for Each Wearer.

In A 1986 McDonald’s Ad, One Deaf Friend “Silently” Convinces His Other Deaf Friend to Go Enjoy a Burger on the Beach. A Young Woman Studies Outdoors on a School Campus. A Young Man Signs to Her That They Should Go to the Beach Instead of Studying for Exams. She Relents When He Mentions That They Could Stop at McDonald’s on the Way. The Two Are Then Shown Riding Their Bikes with McDonald’s Takeout, and Enjoying a Picnic at the Shore. The Conversation Takes Place Entirely in Sign Language with Written Subtitles. The Jingle “It’s A Good Time for the Great Taste of McDonald’s” is Heard as Instrumental Only, without Lyrics.

When these ads appeared in the mid-1980s, Tony Robinson of the Los Angeles Times acknowledged their importance in an article on December 15, 1986: “And more and more often, the nation’s disabled are being seen [leading active, vital lives], not just on telethons and late-night public service ads but through the high-production, high-stakes world of television commercials.” As one advertiser notes, casting people with disabilities in ads was a significant sign because “advertising ‘has a very big role to play in setting social norms.’” However, as Robert Lins, creative director for McDonald’s at the time commented, the industry worried about exploitation: “We always took a cautious position because either we were afraid we would portray them incorrectly or that people would say we were using them to sell hamburgers. But we talked to people, and people said: ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’”

Like some disability advocates during and since that time, advertising scholar Richard Pollay was not so optimistic about the sudden emergence of disability in advertising in the 1980s. Pollay explained that advertisers tend to be averse to using images that “take the world as it is.” He worried that the celebration of a few ads’ inclusion of disabled people for a second or two in a thirty-second spot did not do enough to build empathy for and understanding of the true disabled experience. Further, for him, such short and passing inclusion did little to overcome stereotypes and change public opinion about disabilities. Representing people with disabilities as isolated from others, as was done in the case of McDonald’s “Silent Persuasion” ad, or passively including people with disabilities without making them central actors, as was done with the Levi’s ad, minimizes the presence of and contributions of the disabled in society. Still, some at the time saw this as a step in a positive direction. Certainly, there was a burden in having a small number of representations of disability stand in as the reality for all people with disabilities, but some would argue that some positive representation of disability was better than none at all.

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After the initial increase in representing disability in the 1980s, the advertising industry made efforts to show “realistic, positive, more varied, and even humorous depictions of the disabled.” Despite these efforts, though, people with disabilities have tended to be represented in a fleeting manner. When they have been central characters in ads, three main stereotypes have persisted: the disabled as victims to pity, the disabled as inspirational “super crips,” and the disabled as a source of humor or the butt of jokes.

The first trope is that the disabled are victims to pity and often in need of an able-bodied savior. This stereotype has played out significantly in the past, as seen through the earlier examples from the March of Dimes, US War Bonds, and the Jerry Lewis telethon, but it has more recently taken on more subtle forms.

Advertisements for the Special Olympics, a sports organization founded in 1968 for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, have used messages that provoke sympathy within the viewer to garner support for its cause. Although the organization’s mission is to empower and include people with intellectual and physical disabilities, some of its advertisements may unintentionally treat the intellectually disabled as passive and only being able to do what they dream if the able-bodied can support them through financial and other means.

This Special Olympics Ad Asks Those without Disabilities to “Help Bring the Game” through Donations; Otherwise, the Dreams of the Disabled Will Never Be Possible. A Gymnast Walks across Empty Bleachers instead of a Balance Beam; a Basketball Player Watches Others Play from behind a Fence; a Swimmer Looks at a Pool That’s Been Covered Over for the Winter; a Skater in Her Sock Feet Slides across a Wood Floor; a Weight Lifter Hoists Packages in a Warehouse instead of Barbells. These are Examples of Athletes Who, the Ad Imagines, Will Be Held Back without Donations from the Able-Bodied.

The second major trope is the inspirational “super crip,” which idealizes people with disabilities as somehow being superhuman in their “victories” over their disabilities. Such depictions turn people with disabilities into inspirational heroes, often for doing ordinary things in their everyday life. In addition to turning a disabled person’s life into a form of “inspiration porn,” this stereotype reinforces the notion of disability as being something to overcome. Moreover, able-bodied people implicitly come to feel better about their able-bodiedness as they watch and listen to the disabled’s abilities to defeat all of the “barriers” put in their way by their differently abled bodies. Facing such a representation, a person who sees her disability as a regular part of her life might ask some important questions: “Am I only defined by my disability? Would I be inspirational in this context if I did not have a disability?” Like ads using pity and sympathy, ads with an inspirational “super crip” narrative treat the disabled as one-dimensional people (i.e. disability is the most important thing about them) who make able-bodied people feel better about themselves.

In the ABC Sitcom Speechless, Two Characters Explain the Concept of “Inspiration Porn,” or the Creation of a One-Dimensional Image of Disabled People as Always Being Inspirational to Make Able-Bodied People Feel Better about Themselves.

In a popular and humorous TED Talk, Australian comedian and disability rights activist Stella Young explains why she should not be seen as inspiring just because she is disabled.

The idea of “inspiration porn” has found its way in advertising in often-subtle ways. Public Service Announcements (PSAs) regularly feature famous stars talking about important societal topics because people look up to them. When disabled stars are called upon to appear in PSAs, not only do the PSAs use their stardom to encourage audience members to think differently about a topic, but their status as disabled stars lends even more inspirational credence to their messages given their place among the few disabled stars visible in the media. Two examples include blind American musician Ray Charles and American deaf actress Marlee Matlin. Charles asks Americans to allow people with disabilities to participate and contribute to society in various ways. He mentions accessibility, inclusion, signage, and other issues that impact the disabled. Matlin encourages people to use non-violent means to deal with anger. Unlike most ads that many people see, Matlin’s PSA is notable because it uses sign language with captions.

In a 1987 PSA, Blind Musician Ray Charles Provides an Inspiring Message of Ways to Support People with Disabilities. Charles Plays Piano and Speaks to Camera about the 35 Million Americans with Disabilities, Who Want the Same Things as Anyone Else?“to Participate.” He Encourages Viewers to Help Address These Issues in Their Own Communities.

In a NBC “The More Your Know” PSA, Deaf Actor Marlee Matlin Tells Viewers Not to Use Violence to Manage Their Anger. She Signs while Perched on a Park Bench in a White Studio Setting, and Soft Piano Music Provides the Only Sound.

Some brands have tried to make themselves appear aspirational by using famous disabled people. In a 1985 ad, Stevie Wonder associates Hansen Soda with his accomplishments as a blind musician and songwriter by telling viewers that “some things in life are inspirational.” In a similar way, an early Apple PowerBook commercial has Marlee Matlin sign and type her answers for what “power” means: no limits, no barriers, no restrictions, fighting stereotypes, proving others wrong, independence, confidence, and freedom of expression. Ultimately, power comes through the use of Apple’s laptop, but the message is delivered by a well-known disabled actress at the time, which the audience would most likely say embodies the same qualities. In other words, Matlin’s story of being strong and powerful as a disabled person aligns with the power and strength that could come through the use of Apple’s new, innovative technology.

Stevie Wonder Associates Hansen Soda with His Accomplishments as a Blind Musician and Songwriter by Telling Viewers That “Some Things in Life Are Inspirational.” While Delivering the Line, He Sings and Plays a Jingle about the Natural Taste of Hansen’s and of Life. He Sits among Many Keyboards, and Shots of Wet Cold Soda Cans Are Interspersed with Shots of His Fingers Masterfully Finding Each Key on the Keyboard.

Apple Aligns the Power That Comes with Using Its Newest Laptop with Marlee Matlin, a Famous and Powerful Deaf Actress in Hollywood. She Sits in a Living Room Using a Laptop and Makes Declarations in ASL about Power: “Power is the Freedom of Expression. Power is Macintosh.” There Is No Music Playing, but the Audience Hears Some Typing and a Clap.

A more controversial example of a company trying to affiliate itself with an inspirational disabled actor came in 2000 when Nuveen Investments ran an ad during the Super Bowl featuring the Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who became paralyzed five years earlier when he injured his spinal cord while riding a horse. The ad shows Reeve in a fictionalized future revealing that he could walk after investments were made into spinal cord regeneration research. The ad invokes sympathy toward Reeve but also plays upon his status as the actor having starred as the character Superman. Not only is Reeve’s personal life inspirational, but the fictional character associated with him makes him extraordinary. Ultimately, the ad creates an inspirational story of a well-known disabled “superman” being able to “beat the odds” with the help of a company’s investments in medical research. What might have been intended to be a progressive message about the need to invest in new therapies led to anger and confusion. Some people thought that the ad actually showed Christopher Reeve cured from his condition. Others were worried about the digitally manipulated image of Reeve raising false hopes among paralyzed people that a quick cure was imminent. Beyond the veracity of what could be done with Reeve’s condition, the ad underscored society’s preference for able-bodiedness and the tendency to draw extra special attention to inspirational stories of the disabled overcoming the odds of their conditions. 

This Controversial 2000 Super Bowl Spot for Nuveen Investments Puts Superman Actor Christopher Reeve in the Role of “Super Crip.” At a Gala Set in the Future, Reeve Is Introduced as a Breakthrough in Spinal Cord Injury and Walks onto the Stage (His Face is Digitally Placed on an Able-Bodied Actor). There Are Reaction Shots of the Attendees and the Rest of the World Watches the Coverage Via TV. The Tagline Says “What Amazing Things Can You Make Happen?”

The inspirational “super crip” is a prominent figure found frequently in advertisements for sport competitions for people with a range of disabilities like the Paralympic Games, which are international sports competitions that have been organized alongside the Olympic Games since 1960. One prominent example is British Channel 4’s trailer “We’re the Superhumans” for the 2016 Rio de Janiero Paralympic Games. Although this ad was intended to garner attention for and interest in the Paralympic Games as well as respect for Paralympic athletes’ hard work, its equation of the disabled with “superhumans” falls well within the super crip trope. Various athletes are not necessarily presented for their athletic talents. Rather, they are presented as entertaining extreme sports stars hellbent on victory because they are “beyond human” in their ability to overcome their disabilities.

Britain’s Channel 4 Trailer for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games Uses the “Super Crip” Trope by Presenting Disabled Athletes as Superhuman. The Long Spot Features the Expected Montages of Athletes in Various Sports Such as Track and Field, Fencing, Swimming, etc., but Also Features a Large Jazz Band with Differently Abled Musicians to Perform the Upbeat Soundtrack Proclaiming, “Yes I Can!” There Are Also Daily and Domestic Scenes Such as Eating Breakfast or Teeth Brushing.

The “super crip” is regularly used in sports apparel advertising, too. Nike has been known to present sports as an inspirational activity that all members of society can enjoy. The brand has regularly included people with disabilities as an explicit subject of an ad, or as a part of broader messages about athletes overcoming the odds or facing adversity. In one example, Nike’s “No Excuses” ad has paraplegic basketball player Matt Scott listing off a series of excuses that people use to not exercise or practice a sport. As the ad unfolds, the viewer comes to realize that the man is dribbling two basketballs while sitting in a wheelchair. The implied message is that if he can go out and play basketball in his condition, no one else has an excuse to not go out and practice or play. Matt Scott is used to inspire others to not give up on their sport and goals for the game. The idea is that if a disabled man can face his challenges and still get out and practice, so should an able-bodied person.

Nike Ads Often Try to Inspire People to Achieve and Do Their Best through Exercise and Sports, Especially as Seen through This “No Excuses” Ad Featuring Paraplegic Basketball Athlete Matt Scott. We See Only Scott’s Head and Upper Body as He Recites a Litany of Common Excuses People Give for Not Exercising. On the Last Excuse—“My Feet Hurt”—the Camera Cuts to a Full Shot of Scott, Revealing His Wheelchair, as He Slams Two Basketballs Down on the Court. The Nike Motto Appears: “JUST DO IT.”

In 2018, Nike’s controversial “Dream Crazy” ad featuring NFL football player Colin Kaepernick includes people with disabilities, among many others, fighting against “crazy” odds to do what they love. When looking closely at this ad, though, it is apparent that Nike continues to focus only on certain types of well-recognized forms of disability like those in wheelchairs. For example, in one scene featuring a disabled person, one is struck by how the ad follows the same formula as the “No Excuses” ad: a paraplegic basketball player dribbles two basketballs on the exact same court. The key difference is that the basketball player in this ad is a White woman.

Nike’s “Dream Crazy” Ad Features People with Disabilities, but Relies on a Similar Formula the Company Used in the Past for Its “No Excuses” Ad. A Voiceover by Colin Kaepernick Celebrates Athletes with “Crazy” Dreams, Including Transgender Skateboarder Nyjah Huston as He Crashes Many Times to Learn a Trick, Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad as the First US Olympian to Wear a Hijab, Basketball Legend Lebron James as He Opens a School, the US Women’s Soccer Team as They Become World Cup Champions, and NFL Player and Amputee Shaqem Griffin Making a Winning Play. We See a Shot of Kaepernick from Behind with an American Flag in the Background, and as He Slowly Turns to Camera, Hear the Words: “Believe in Something, Even If It Means Sacrificing Everything.”

The third and final trope in representing disability is advertisements using people’s disabilities as a source of humor and the butt of jokes. In some cases, it could be a disabled person using self-disparaging humor to poke fun at her disability to make able-bodied people feel more comfortable. It could also be a case of the “innocent fool” where people with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disabilities, are “portrayed as childlike” and “presented as unavoidably constrained by their circumstances and often are seen as people to laugh at, or as the butt of jokes.” This is not to say that people with disabilities cannot be humorous and crack a joke, but the question is if a disability is the basis of the joke and whether such a basis is fairly treating the person and her disability.

There are some notable examples involving blindness. In a 1984 ad for Pioneer LaserDisc, Ray Charles talks about new technology featuring music videos. Although Charles admits that he cannot see the videos that play, he can hear their fine quality. Others tell him the LaserDisc video “blows videotape away” in image quality, for which he responds, “Now who am I to argue?” In a Peugeot car ad, Charles is first shown feeling the body of a 306 Cabriolet before he drives around a deserted Utah landscape, then he stops and addresses the viewer. A tagline then appears in French: “When you see it you want it.”

Ray Charles Jokes about His Inability to Determine the Quality of the Images for LaserDisc Music Videos; He Can Only Assume It Is True Because the Experts Say It Is So. In This Spot, Charles Emphasizes the High Quality of the Audio on Music Videos, Movies, and Concert Recordings Viewed with LaserDisc. The Branding Message Appears Onscreen: “The Pioneer LaserDisc Brand. Video for Those Who Really Care About Audio.” Charles Then Brings Out Another Blind Pianist, Jazz Legend George Shearing, for a Silent, Walk-On Cameo. 

Although Not Explicitly a Joke, One Might Wonder about Peugeot’s Intentions in Having a Blind Man Drive Its Car on the Salt Flats of Utah. The Spot Opens with Closeups of Ray Charles’ Hands Following the Curves of a Sleek, Red Car Body. Aerial Views Zoom in to Show Us It Is the Peugeot 306 Cabriolet. Ray Charles Sings “Georgia,” and We See That He Is in the Driver’s Seat. Sun Illuminates Charles’ Smiling Face as His Hands Guide the Steering Wheel. Charles Parks for a Moment and Speaks a Brand Message in French. The Spot Ends with Ray Charles’ Happy Expression, Superimposed over the Peugeot Driving Away, for a Double Exposure Effect.

A 1990 Levi’s 501 Jeans spot provides a humorous story involving disability and a woman bank robber sneaking into a men’s public restroom. As she enters the restroom and is about to change into her getaway clothes, she realizes a man is sitting in the restroom with her. However, she presumes that he is blind because he is wearing sunglasses and has a white cane. Thinking that the man cannot see her, she continues to undress down to her underwear, puts on her new clothes, and then provocatively buttons up the front of her Levi’s jeans within inches of his face. Only after she leaves do the viewers realize that the man is not blind (he was holding the cane for his blind companion in a nearby stall). Although this ad with an ironic twist was intended for a laugh, it implies that blind people cannot sense what is around them, it represents people with disabilities as passive, and it questions disabled people’s ability to be sexually attracted or aroused.

A 1990 Levi’s 501 Jeans Ad Uses Humor to Present Blind People as Passive and Unaware of Their Surroundings.

During the 2010 Super Bowl, Stevie Wonder appeared with comedian Tracy Morgan in a Volkswagen spot showing various people playing Punch Bug or Slug Bug—a game in which someone slugs someone else, and calls out the paint color, every time a Volkswagen car passes by. Toward the end of the ad, Wonder punches Morgan on the shoulder and proclaims, “Red one!” as a red Volkswagen sedan pulls away from the curb. Morgan asks dumbfoundedly, “How do you do that?!?” Wonder’s only response is “Ha!” Before the ad ends, Morgan is shown waving his hands in front of Wonder’s sunglasses. Like the case of the Levi’s ad as well as Ray Charles in the LaserDisc and Peugeot ads, what is intended as ironic humor involving blindness ultimately treats a disabled condition as the source of a joke. This is not to say that people with disabilities cannot use their disability as a source of humor for themselves, but one should ask how making one’s disability a joke for the presumed able-bodied viewer might impact how the disabled see themselves and their value in a world predominantly designed for the able-bodied.

This 2010 Super Bowl Ad for Volkswagen Cracks a Joke Using the “Slug Bug” Game, but It Also Insinuates That People with Disabilities Might Be Faking It. The Ad Attempts to Playfully Show Many Unlikely People Delivering Punches When They Spot a Volkswagen, Including a Paramedic, a Pregnant Woman, a Waitress, and an Amish Man Riding in a Horsedrawn Buggy. Finally, Stevie Wonder Punches Tracy Morgan, Who Displays Confusion and Waves His Hand in front of Wonder’s Face. The Tagline Explains That with 13 Different Car Models, “It’s a Whole New Game.”

Perhaps one of the most troubling examples of an advertisement using disability to tell a “joke” came in a 2017 Zuma Juice online ad featuring three women, as Pacific Standard writer David M. Perry describes: “a perky hyper-enthusiastic spokeswoman, a super-fit woman trying to juice her own fruits and vegetables, and a slovenly woman in a wheelchair.” Contrary to the two able-bodied women talking about their love of juicing and the healthy benefits that come with it, the woman in the wheelchair is depicted as heavier set and uncaring of her health and body. She frantically and goofily eats a container of cheese puffs and sips from an oversized soda container. Moreover, toward the end of the spot, there is the insinuation that she is faking her disability so she can ride around in an electric wheelchair. For Perry, this ad used questionable humor to perpetuate commonly held stereotypes in society about people with disabilities:

This ad trades on two of the most pervasive stereotypes facing disabled folks. First, that their disability is attributable to poor lifestyle choices—i.e. drinking soda and eating junk food. Second, that lots of them are faking and are just lazy. The choices in this ad reflect deeply held stigmas about bodies, health, and disability.

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After receiving significant backlash, Zuma Juice pulled the ad, but not without much criticism, especially from members of the disability rights community. Zuma Juice’s response was sharply criticized on social media, too. As complaints flooded Zuma Juice’s social media feeds, the company tried to justify its representational choices, did not acknowledge that the ad treated disability unfairly, and told social media users that the company was sorry people were offended, which only enraged viewers even more. The case marks the power of social media to help consumers call for immediate and fair treatment of people with disabilities in advertising. As Perry reflects on what happened, the Zuma Juice ad and how it was handled signal the need to address society’s broader ignorance of how people with disabilities have been mistreated and misunderstood in advertising and media messages:

In the end, this is just one ad, and I believe Zuma Juice when they express their contrition and chalk the bad ad up to ignorance, rather than malice. Unfortunately, that ignorance is widespread, a symptom of the big problems about how we talk about and represent disability. Companies, organizations, and even politicians too often casually stigmatize people with disabilities—often to get a cheap laugh or sell some product and policy. Internet outrage might be able to get us less stigmatizing juice, but we’ve a whole lot more work to do to to [sic] address the way we talk about health, wheelchairs, and disability.

A Screenshot from the 2017 Zuma Juice Online Ad Represented a Disabled Woman in an Electric Wheelchair as Intentionally Unhealthy and Lazy. She Is in a Kitchen with an Oversize Container of Snacks in One Hand and an Oversize Drink in the Other.

Another Screenshot from the Zuma Ad Shows a Skirmish When a Woman with a Healthy Lifestyle Tries to Rip a Juice Shaker from a Disabled Woman’s Hands. The Juicing Women Stand Behind a Kitchen Island, One of Them Wrestling an Object from the Snack Food Woman. The Ad Used Questionable Humor to Make Able-Bodied Women Seem More Aware of Healthy Eating Than Their Disabled Counterpart Eating Cheese Puffs.

Signs of Positive Change

There are signs of positive change within the advertising industry even though disabled people are not regularly found in ads, and when they are, representations may fall into the trap of using various stereotypes. Some disabled advertising practitioners like Josh Loebner (as well as their allies) have become increasingly vocal about their concerns about disability’s treatment in advertising messages and within the advertising workplace, which has gained attention in the advertising trade press. As part of his efforts, Loebner authors the blog Advertising & Disability, which provides commentary about trends in advertising and disability. He also provides advice to the industry on how to better reach people with disabilities. In addition to reminding advertisers about the lucrative possibilities presented by the market segment of people with disabilities, he offers practical tips on how to make advertising design and messages more inclusive and accessible. Loebner’s advice reminds advertisers of the need to think in non-ableist ways, consider the possibilities of engaging different senses, and find new modes of communicating, especially through the affordances of digital technologies. Moreover, his work encourages advertisers to think about how they incorporate people with disabilities in their messages and the advertising workplace.

Advertisers and brands have caught on to concerns like Loebner’s. More companies are trying to find ways to develop products that suit the needs and preferences of all of its customers, especially people with disabilities, which they have featured in their ads. As an example, Tommy Hilfiger offers adaptive jeans that have been designed with and for people with disabilities. In its advertising, Hilfiger presents disability not as a burden, but as a source of pride that should not be hidden.

Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive Jeans Signal a Change among Major Brands to Include the Perspectives, Needs, and Preferences of People with Disabilities. In the Ad, a Montage of People of Differing Abilities and Ages Use the Features of the Clothing such as Magnetic Closures, and Enjoy Varieties of Leisure Time, such as Surfing or Creating Art.  The Text of This Ad Reads: “Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive. Designed with and for People with Disabilities. Shop Now at Tommy.com.”

Microsoft Xbox provides another example of a company realizing its important place in the lives of disabled people. As part of a 2019 Super Bowl ad, Microsoft shows how its adaptive controller helps ensure that everyone can play, which can bring people of many abilities together in their enjoyment and love for gaming. To show a more progressive way of representing disability, the ad has young disabled users sharing their experiences with using adaptive controllers. It also showcases disabled users playing with other disabled users as well as non-disabled users. Although the focal point of the ad is on disabilities, its final tagline emphasizes how adaptive technologies can create a world of inclusivity and equal participation of all, regardless of ability: “When everybody plays, we all win.”

Microsoft Xbox’s 2019 Super Bowl Spot Shows How Adaptive Technologies Can Bring People Together, Regardless of Ability. The Ad Shows Children Who Play Xbox Introducing Themselves, and Describing Who They Are in Terms Other Than Their Disability, such as Their Ages and How Much They Love to Play Video Games. The Children Then Reveal Their Disability and Describe How It Affects Play. Kids and Their Parents Discuss the Advantages of the Adaptive Controller, and Describe How Xbox Gaming Is a Leveler for Kids with Disabilities to Interact with Anyone. “No Matter How Your Body Is, You Can Play,” Says One Gamer about the Adaptive Controller.

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In the realm of Public Service Announcements, efforts have been made to help the able-bodied understand the perspectives of the disabled, as seen in innovative campaigns in the UK and Australia. In 2013 and 2014, Grey Agency’s London office teamed up with Scope, a UK-based disability charity, to develop a series of three TV spots called “End the Awkward.” The campaign’s goal was to help the non-disabled rethink the ways in which they interact with the disabled. Each clip asks a question related to one awkward situation depicted in the video: How do I shake a hand that isn’t there? I’ve bent down to a wheelchair user, now what? Is this another crushing rejection or is she deaf? Disabled British comedian Alex Brooker narrates each video in a humorous way by asking the audience whether or not it would be better to go the awkward or non-awkward route. Each video then models an understanding response that treats a person with disability respectfully and in such a way that does not make her feel awkward or bizarre.

UK-Based Disability Charity Scope Designed This PSA to Show People How to Be Less Awkward When Talking with Others Who Might Be Missing a Limb. Booker Sits among Frozen Office Workers to Narrate the Pending Possibly Awkward Interaction. He Ponders Three Actions that the Woman Might Take, the Actors Unfreeze, and the Woman Uses Her Left Hand to Shake the Arriving Man’s Left Hand. They Are Unaware of Booker’s Presence through Movie Magic.

UK-Based Disability Charity Scope Designed This PSA to Show People How Not to Talk Down to Someone in Wheelchair.  As If He Is Invisible, Booker Walks around Frozen Actors to Narrate the Situation, and Points Out Three Courses of Action a Bent Over Man Could Take to Make a Chat with a Co-worker in a Wheelchair Less Awkward. The Man Straightens by Standing Up and the Scenario Becomes Two People Speaking Comfortably.

UK-Based Disability Charity Scope Designed This PSA to Show People How Someone with a Hearing Impairment Might Not Initially Catch on That You’re Trying to Get Her Attention. Again Booker Plays an Invisible Narrator (but Visible to the Viewer) to Suggest Three Ways a Man at a Bar Might Recover from His Initial Misunderstanding that He Was Being Ignored by a Woman Wearing a Hearing Aid that He Didn’t Notice. The Actors Are Frozen Until It’s Time to See the Resolution; The Man Taps Her on the Arm and Asks If She Needs a Fresh Drink. She Says She Does, Smiling Warmly and Booker Approves by Saying “Smooth!” to the Camera.

In 2015, Scope developed another television PSA that mimics a “candid camera” format. A woman manicurist who has cerebral palsy has a loud conversation with an actor playing an ignorant able-bodied customer asking many rude questions that people with cerebral palsy might be asked. In addition to pointing out how people often turn the disabled into inspiring heroes for doing ordinary things, the fake customer makes many assumptions about what it means for a woman to live with cerebral palsy. As the conversation unfolds, Alex Brooker observes remotely and provides commentary for the viewers about the inappropriate and awkward statements the misinformed nail salon client makes. Real customers in the nail salon, who are unaware of the fact that both the rude customer and the manicurist are actors, listen to the conversation with shock and disgust.

This British PSA Fights against the Ways in Which Able-Bodied People Pity and Make False Assumptions about the Everyday Lives of People with Disabilities. A Manicurist in a Wheelchair Deals Humorously with a Barrage of Patronizing Remarks Made by Her Able-Bodied Customer. For Example, the Customer Expresses Surprise That the Manicurist Is Able to Scuba Dive on Vacation. She Imagines the Manicurist Doesn’t Need a Couch, Thereby Saving Money, and Suggests She Try Remedies for Her Cerebral Palsy such as Green Tea and Acupuncture. Throughout, We Observe Booker Monitoring the Set-Up Through His Laptop and Making Comedic Commentary about the Shocked Reactions of the other Customers in the Nail Salon.

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Similar to Scope’s work in the UK, the Family and Community Services office in the Australian state of New South Wales started a campaign in 2004 called “Don’t DIS my ABILITY.” In an annual series of videos, print ads, and events, the campaign sought to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3) and provide multidimensional portrayals of people with disabilities. Rather than focusing on pity or a disability being a disabled person’s most important attribute, the campaign shifts attention to the personalities, occupations, hobbies, interests, and dreams of the people with disabilities who were depicted. The campaign’s separation of the prefix dis- from the word ability was done for important purposes. Separating out dis- plays on the word dis, which is a shortened slang form of the word disrespect. By asking people not to dis the represented person’s ability, the campaign tells people not to judge, criticize, or ridicule one’s differing abilities. Moreover, the ad implies that one form of ability is not better than any other. All forms of ability should be respected, and one’s disability should not be seen as a disability at all. It is an ability.

As Part of the “Don’t DIS My ABILITY” Campaign in Australia, This Image Presents Australian Paralympian Tracy Barrell’s Interest in Skateboarding. In an Artistic Photoshoot She Sits on a French Baroque Upholstered Chair but Rests Her Hand on an Upended Board, and We See that Her Disability Involves Her Legs. She Wears Makeup and Clothing Showing that She’s Part of Skate Culture.

Maltesers, a popular British brand of malted milk ball candies, provides a notable commercial ad campaign showcasing people with disabilities in a more multidimensional way. Rather than avoiding representing disabled people as sexually attractive beings, two of the campaign’s ads present disabled people telling humorous stories about sexual exploits with a new boyfriend or snagging a phone number at a wedding. In another instance, a hearing impaired woman signs a funny, but messy story about how she lost and found her hearing aid.

A Maltesers 2016 “Light Side of Disability” Campaign Shares a Disabled Woman’s Sexual Experiences, Contrary to Advertising and Media’s Tendency to De-Sexualize People with Disabilities. In the Spot, Three Friends Are Chatting at a Picnic Table Area by a River and Snacking as They Catch Up. Using a Bag of Maltesers as a Prop, a Young Woman with Cerebral Palsy Demonstrates to The Other Two How Her Spasm During a Petting Session Contributed to Her Boyfriend’s Mood.

In This 2016 Maltesers Ad, a Woman Uses Humorous Signs and Maltesers to Tell and Show a Story about How Her Hearing Aid Was Knocked Out and Eaten by Her Boyfriend’s Dog. She Relates with Chagrin That He Promised to Return It To her Sometime the Next Day.

This 2016 Maltesers Ad Shows a Cheeky Disabled Woman. Three People Sit at a Table in an Office Lunchroom. Using Maltesers The Woman Illustrates How She Accidentally Smashed the Bride’s Foot Under Her Wheel at a Wedding. Her Friends Appear Horrified, Until She Admits She Also Scored the Best Man’s Phone Number.

In a behind-the-scenes look at Maltesers’ “Light Side of Advertising” campaign, which was produced for the 2016 Paralympic Games as a collaboration between Maltesers, Scope, and the ad agency BBDO, viewers learn that the ad campaign’s primary goal was to represent “the reality of disabled people’s lives.” Disabled actor Storme Toolis said she enjoyed bringing “openness and warmness” to her quirky, down-to-earth character. Samantha Renke, the disabled actor in the funny wedding ad, found the spot gave her an opportunity to show her own personality as “a feisty young person” who has fun and is quite cheeky. Deaf actor Genevieve Barr appreciated the chance to tell a story that was “inherently funny because of the sign language that was being used and because of the animation in the story that was being told.” These three disabled actor’s experiences show how advertisements can be more inclusive and fair when people with disabilities are not only cast in the roles of disabled characters, but also when the roles are multidimensional and resonate with their lived experiences. Moreover, the spots use humor in a way that does not treat disabled people as the butt of someone else’s joke. As Michele Oliver, Mars Chocolate UK’s Vice President of Marketing, states about her company’s place in representing disabilities: “. . . we feel very responsible for ensuring that we do embrace diversity. Are we perfect? No. Can we get better? Definitely. And we are looking at ways to improve.” Maltesers “Light Side of Disability” campaign was noted to be one of its most successful campaigns, and the company has gone on to make more advertisements that showcase other forms of diversity.

Actors and Producers Talk about Their Work to Show a More Realistic Representation of Disability through Maltesers’ 2016 “Light Side of Disability” Campaign.

In their quantitative study of representations of disabilities in American advertising, communication professors Dennis J. Ganahl and Mark Arbuckle make an important statement that should be remembered by students, teachers, and practitioners of advertising: “If commercials practice inclusion of persons with disabilities so will the American culture.” Kate Magee makes a similar argument when assessing the situation in the UK for the trade magazine Campaign on September 9, 2016: “The key, as with other diversity issues, is seeing people as individuals and without labels. And the media, marketing and advertising industries have an opportunity to help break down social stigmas around disability by making it more visible.” These important points certainly apply to other parts of the world, too. By acknowledging past and current stereotypes of disability and seeing the success of more positive efforts take root, more steps can be taken in the future to make advertising more inclusive of people of all abilities, which will only contribute to more acceptance and understanding of disability in broader culture and society.

by Dr. Edward Timke

The full version of the chapter, which includes various multimedia examples, is found at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/736400

Edward Timke, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising + Public Relations and a core faculty member in the Center for Gender in Global Contexts and the Communication Solutions for a Diverse Society Consortium at Michigan State University. Edward has lived with a permanent hearing disability since birth and is a proud user of bone-anchored hearing aids.

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