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Rebranding Disability: Redefining Representation in Advertising and Marketing

Since it began in 1954, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has been the definitive benchmark that drives progress, globally. But this year, the '23 Cannes Lion Advertising Awards were really making progress in the area of disability inclusion, and this disabled copywriter buckled in for the ride.

So let’s do a quick overview of the current situation. Globally, people with disabilities make up approximately 20% of audiences, but recent Nielsen data has shown that this same group are being included in advertising at only 1% or less during prime-time viewing. Similar studies have shown equally low results and you needn’t be a senior strategist to know that these figures don’t add correlate – having bad outcomes for society and business bottom lines.

Disability representation can be simpler than it's often made out to be. Additionally, seamless or incidental inclusion looks so much more authentic than attempts to signpost with performative inclusion (also known as tokenism). Disability is, after all, the world's largest minority, so including disability in popular culture, like advertising and marketing should not be groundbreaking and newsworthy.

The media industry plays a vital role in normalising disabilities, but to get it right we need to consider not only that we’re representing people with disabilities, but also how we’re doing that.

Importantly, while not including people with disabilities is problematic, including disabled people in undesirable ways can also be harmful and reinforce damaging stereotypes.

One example of a bad disability stereotype is "inspiration porn", campaigns designed to tug at heartstrings and evoke pity by portraying people with disabilities (PWD) as helpless victims. On the other end is the clichéd portrayal of PWD as otherworldly or superhuman, particularly during events like the Paralympics.

These representations might be born from good intentions and even truthful at times for some, but they fail to capture the true essence of disability. Just like the non-disabled community, the disabled community is incredibly rich and diverse. It’s not impossible for award-winning creative to include disability – as Cannes Lion has just shown us.

Lisa Cox is a former agency advertiser, TEDx speaker, author, executive producer and internationally acclaimed disability advocate, who helps businesses and industries navigate the nuances of disability inclusion in their workplace's practices and external content to reshape social attitudes while simultaneously meeting the company’s strategic and commercial objectives.

Her TEDx Talk about rebranding disability looked at the significant financial and economic benefits to businesses if they embrace disability inclusion and use this powerful medium to change public perceptions while realising the significant ROI this market can bring.

Disability representation is a win/win for everyone, if we do it correctly

When brands embrace disability representation in their advertising campaigns, they open the door to a multitude of benefits. Firstly, inclusive advertising allows brands to connect with a broader audience. People with disabilities make up a significant portion of the population, and by representing them authentically, brands can resonate with this demographic.

Add to this the friends, family and supporters of PWD who want to see the person or community they care about represented. As a real-life example, Lisa says, “Recently, I went out with a group of friends for dinner and drinks, but I chose the restaurant based on an advertisement I’d seen the week before. I was the only disabled person in that group and together, we spent quite a bit on dinner that night”.

If you multiply Lisa’s single experience by many experiences around the world each day you begin to see the value in not excluding PWD from your advertising and marketing efforts.

As a media professional and inclusive advertising consultant, Lisa believes that these types of ads showcase a brand's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, which can enhance brand reputation and attract a loyal customer base. A great deal of Lisa's work involves working with companies that want to achieve this but don't know where to begin.

Lisa says, “It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers and don’t know where to start. The important thing is a willingness to listen, learn and try with people like myself to guide you”.

"Compelling disability representation provides an opportunity for brands to challenge societal norms and break away from the crowd. This approach can generate positive buzz, attract media attention, and differentiate brands from their competitors," she adds.

Lisa has recommendations for businesses that want to represent PWD confidently and effectively.

1. Authenticity and diversity

Representing disability authentically starts with including disabled voices in the creative and decision-making process. By involving disabled talent, brands can gain valuable insights and perspectives, ensuring that their campaigns accurately reflect the experiences of the community they aim to represent. It is crucial to recognise the diversity within the disabled community and avoid generalisations.

2. Avoid tokenism

Tokenism involves featuring a single disabled individual as a checkbox or an afterthought, rather than integrating them naturally into the narrative. Brands should strive for meaningful and diverse representation, where disabled individuals are portrayed as fully realised characters, not just as props or symbols. You can avoid tokenism in shooting by making sure the camera doesn’t hold still on a physically disabled person in a performative attempt to signpost how inclusive the ad is trying to be.

3. Positive storytelling

Move beyond pity or inspiration and focus on empowering narratives that highlight the strengths, achievements, and everyday experiences of disabled individuals. This approach promotes inclusivity and challenges misconceptions about disability. This is not to say that people with disabilities are superhuman, have superpowers or that we are all inspirational saints. This is another example of a fine and nuanced balanced balance that a great creative will know the difference between. As always, reach out to the disability community if you have questions.

4. Collaboration and consultation

Engaging with disability organisations, experts, and the disabled community itself is crucial. Collaborating and seeking input from these stakeholders ensures that advertising campaigns are going to deliver the win/win outcome they're supposed to deliver. There's more to disability inclusion than just 'sticking a person with a wheelchair in the ad' - A consultant can talk you through all the nuances and answer all your questions in a judgement-free environment.

Lisa says, “I spent the first part of my life and my advertising career without physical disabilities so I know what it feels like to have a question about what to say or how to say it but be too afraid to ask it because I didn’t want to offend anyone. For that reason, I can really empathise with my audiences.”

5. Educate and raise awareness

Brands should invest in educating their employees, creative teams, and decision-makers about disability inclusion. This includes providing training on disability etiquette, terminology, and dispelling common stereotypes. By fostering a culture of understanding and awareness, brands can ensure that disability representati

6. Normalise disability

Rather than treating disability as an exceptional or extraordinary trait, brands should aim to normalise disability in their advertisements. Portraying disabled individuals in everyday scenarios and diverse roles helps challenge societal perceptions and promotes inclusivity. Lifestyle shoots are a great opportunity to include people with a disability. As are automotive, travel, FMCG, technology, fashion and so much more.

Lisa says, "Yes, people with disabilities travel, drive cars, shop for clothes, have families, use technology for work or home and plenty more but advertising is almost completely void of signs of disability.

As someone who spends far more time than the average consumer watching and reading about advertising, you can be sure that there are very few brands whose strategy has previously included the disability community. Our disability dollars are waiting for smart businesses to realise our value and worth. As I said in my TEDx Talk, my legs don't work but my credit card does”.

7. Accessible marketing materials

Holistic inclusion across advertising and marketing will show a greater commitment to accessibility for all abilities. Advances in technology have been great for many in the disability community and now brands can use them as part of their advertising and marketing.

For example, closed captions, audio descriptions, and alternative text assist many in the disability community but can also benefit those without disabilities.

If the advertising industry can address its anxieties surrounding disability representation, it can create inclusive and authentic campaigns that deliver a better return on investment. Understanding and avoiding the pitfalls of misrepresentation enables brands to connect with a broader audience, challenge societal norms, and ultimately stand out from the crowd.

As brands navigate this journey, they have the power to shape public perceptions, foster acceptance, and contribute to a society that values and celebrates the diversity of all individuals.

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