Why are so few brands casting differently-abled actors?
Differently-abled actors in ad campaigns are conspicuous in their absence in a way that BAME individuals are (thankfully) not nowadays
With the Paralympics in full swing and seeing one or two really strong ads including differently-abled actors, I was really excited to have a Google and see which brands I could find that have excelled in this element of inclusivity.
But I was pretty surprised to find that I couldn't find many examples from the last three or so years.
The best examples of inclusivity were businesses building adaptive ranges for differently-abled customers, for example adaptive gaming controllers from Microsoft or adaptive clothing from Gap.
These products are revolutionary for many, but we end up in the same place as we have with women’s fashion historically; where larger models are only cast for ‘plus size’ ranges.
I didn’t see many everyday brands portraying an accurate representation of society’s broad tapestry of various abilities within their ads unless the products were of a relevant range.
For this reason, please forgive me if some of these examples are more than a couple of years old – it's not through lack of trying but seemingly a change in the diversity agendas for businesses in the last few years.
My first example is the Maltesers ad campaign with included differently-abled individuals eating lunch with friends and discussing their weekends.
In one creative, a wheelchair user explains how she ran over the bride’s foot at a wedding but at least got to go home with the best man’s number. In another creative (below), a character explains how she had a hand spasm at a critical time in bed with her boyfriend but that it didn't end so badly (nudge, nudge, wink wink).
Some viewers of this campaign felt that the ads focussed too much on the condition of that one particular individual rather than having a differently-abled actor cast purely for the sake of reflecting society.
It's worth bearing in mind in the case of the Maltesers ads that these stemmed from Channel 4’s "Superhumans Wanted" competition, where the winners (Mars) won £1m to launch a new campaign that championed diversity and disability, so of course the script needed to relate strongly to the differently-abled community.
For me these ads demonstrate three points:
- Differently-abled individuals (including those who use wheelchairs or mobility aids, hearing aids, colostomy bags etc) gossip with their friends and have sex lives – just like any other person.
- While "disabled" individuals may often be portrayed as innocent, unfortunate, helpless beings (unfortunately, often by the very charities fundraising for support), many are independent, strong-willed, and confident – just like any other person.
- There is no reason you would avoid talking with your friends about a wheelchair or a seizure any more than you would avoid talking about wearing glasses. Among friends and family, differences in ability are not taboo subjects.
The second of my examples is the Guinness wheelchair basketball ad from 2013. In this minute long creative we see a group of men playing basketball in wheelchairs, getting battered and bruised and really giving it everything they’ve got.
Towards the end of the ad, all but one of the men stand up from their wheelchair; only one of the men is a wheelchair user; his friends were just doing what they could to join him in the game.
It’s especially poignant where at the end of the creative, the chap in the wheelchair remarks to his friends, “You guys are getting better at this.”
It might seem like a small thing but for a differently abled person to be shown teaching typically abled individuals how to do something, and highlighting the wheelchair-user’s skill is a real step change in the narrative that we tend to see around differently abled individuals.
My final example is from Scope a ‘disability’ charity who ran a campaign called ‘End the Awkward’ in 2016. In the ads an individual with dwarfism walks into an office and all of the typically abled individuals stare, stop what they're doing, and panic as to how to act. Scope recommends that they HIDE. HIDE stands for: say hi, introduce yourself, don't panic, and end the awkward.
Some have complained that people shouldn't have to learn how to speak to differently abled individuals, as they should be spoken to like anyone else.
Ahem, this is exactly what this ad is saying. Act like you would with anyone else; stay calm and say hello!
I love that the main character of this ad is walking around the office in a beautifully tailored suit smiling in a really friendly manner; that's very different to most of the depictions that we see of differently-abled people; many ‘disabilities’ don’t affect mobility and it’s important for society to recognise this.
It's also a perfect juxtaposition to what we usually see on our screens; the office workers in the ad are depicted as scared, irrational, neurotic children, whilst the main character just happens to have dwarfism. The focus is very much on the response to the individual, rather than the condition of the individual themselves.
I would love to see a broader range of individuals portrayed in advertising; an amputee model could very effectively demonstrate how beautiful a jumper is, furniture companies could show an image including a wheelchair user at a dining table to demonstrate versatility, and since when would a model with a hearing aid prevent you from buying the pair of shoes they’re rocking?
Differently-abled models and actors in ad campaigns are conspicuous in their absence in a way that BAME individuals, or characters of shapes and sizes are (thankfully) not nowadays.
The fight for diversity in advertising should not need to be drip-fed by race, gender, age, appearance; we shouldn’t require an entire social movement for brands to reflect each facet of the society they rely on to exist. Inclusion of a societal cross-section should be the rule, not the exception.
Niki Grant is Search Director at The Kite Factory. Diagnosed with spinal disc herniations, osteoarthritis, and joint hypermobility syndrome in 2011, she considers herself to be a ‘differently-abled’ individual