Webcast archive: Disability and advertising, Part I

This week, we look at disability in advertising, including campaigns by Malteasers chocolate, Guinness, the Olympics, and various inaccurate portrayals.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray, and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • Disability and advertising, Part I

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • This week, we’re looking at the relationship between disability and advertising. People with disabilities are rarely shown in mainstream advertisements. A 2017 article that appeared on the Oglivy advertising firm’s website stated that “People with disabilities make up 17.9% of the UK population, but are only represented by 0.06% of people featured in adverts.”
  • Yet the disability community offers a huge potential market.  In the US alone, approximately 57 million people have disabilities. Various estimates show that they spend anywhere from 200 to 500 billion dollars per year. A 2016 report showed that roughly 6 million disabled Canadiansspend 55 billion dollars a year. These numbers do not count family members, friends, or other contacts. This means that businesses are ignoring a lot of potential customers!
  • Companies hesitate to show disabled people using their products due to the visual nature of advertising, which emphasizes physical beauty and “perfect” bodies. Openly displaying disability also reminds nondisabled viewers that their current physical state is temporary.
  • A 2014 episode of the CBC Radio series “Under the Influence” (which focuses on the role of advertising in society) also illustrates the exclusion of disabled people. A listener sent in a question about how to market to people with disabilities as a specific demographic. The program’s host, Terry O’Reilly, who is an award-winning advertising executive, misunderstood the question and suggested the use of closed captioning and described video! (This answer was also inaccurate; video descriptions have never been provided for commercials.) Although the show has explored marketing aimed at women and the LGBT community, people with disabilities haven’t yet been featured.
  • The first appearances of disabled people in popular media were linked to charities run by nondisabled people. These organizations raised funds by promoting the idea that disabled people needed the kindness, pity and care of the nondisabled population to survive. Most of the funds raised went to operations, marketing, and medical research, with little left over for direct services to disabled people.  The link between disability and pity is still so strong that some companies fear any mention of disability will be confused for an awareness or fundraising campaign.
  • Two themes arose from the charity model. In inspiration porn, disabled people are praised for ordinary activities like shopping or riding the bus.  On the other hand, extraordinary accomplishments, like athletic feats, are held out as the standard to achieve. These “supercrips” spread the message that disabled people can “rise above,” their conditions, especially if they have a “positive attitude”, while ignoring the barriers that truly disable them. Nondisabled observers are relieved of the responsibility to provide equal access and can attribute disabled people’s frustration to their individual circumstances, rather than discrimination.
  • The slogan for Canada’s Paralympic competition this year is a case in point; it was “Greatness is rare.” This raises the question: do people with disabilities only deserve to be seen when they accomplish great things? What does that say about disabled people who aren’t professional athletes?
  • In the past few years, it has become trendy to include disabled kids in fashion ads in magazines. Though campaigns should reflect the full range of people who wear the company’s clothes, often, the strongest message a viewer comes away with is “Aww, that’s cute!” Compare this to nondisabled kids, whose mini versions of adult clothes are shown as “cool” and “edgy.”
  • One of the most patronizing ads we’ve seen was created by Canadian Tire for the Rio Olympics in 2016. It shows a boy sitting passively in a wheelchair on his (apparently inaccessible) porch, watching as neighbourhood kids play basketball. The other boys notice that he is left out and invite him to join them. The boy finds the other kids using bicycles, an office chair, a wagon, and other wheeled seats to simulate playing wheelchair basketball. This gesture of “inclusion” is supposed to reflect the spirit of Canada, hence Canadian Tire.  Any positive message is overshadowed by the passivity of the disabled boy, and the inaccessible porch.  In contrast, a 2013 commercial for Guinness beershows a group of men playing a game of wheelchair basketball. The end of the ad reveals that only one of them actually has a disability. Disability is portrayed as “normal” and equity has been achieved in a way that isn’t condescending.
  • Incidentally, these two ads include no dialogue or voice-over explaining the visuals, thus making the message inaccessible to blind viewers.  This is a common and growing trend in video advertising.
  • Wheelchairs and other mobility aids are still the most common representation of disability in advertising, followed by Deaf people using sign language. People with visual disabilities, and neurodiverse people are rarely shown. Burger King came up with a campaign for National ASL Day in 2016. Their mascot (the King) asked Deaf fans to create a sign for their famous Whopper.  A related commercial showed him in a restaurant near Gallaudet University, where all of the signs and menus had been changed to fingerspelled ASL. That’s not how ASL is used, and this ignorant misstep shows that the campaign was not developed by disabled advertising professionals!
  • Not everything made in the past few years have been horrible. A series of Maltesers commercials from Mars, Inc. featured real-life stories related to disabilities.  The best-known clip involved a woman using an electric wheelchair. She’s in a park with a group of friends, describing an embarrassing incident she had with her boyfriend. (They get bonus points for giving her a partner and a sex life!)
  • Stephanie Woodward of the Center for Disability Rights was featured in an ad for Honey Maid graham crackers three years ago. Her wheelchair is clearly visible, but both the chair and the accessible environment are shown without comment. In this case, a well-connected advocate was noticed by a company who recognized disability as an element of diversity.  But as we mentioned in our episode on stereotypes last month, people with disabilities don’t often have the opportunity or resources to create more accurate portrayals.
  • As long as disabled people remain invisible in everyday situations, limited to awareness and fundraising campaigns, non-disabled people will continue to fear us and our disabilities.  This fear will fuel the increase in demand for assisted suicide and euthanasia.  Showing disabled people in everyday situations in advertising will go a long way to normalizing disability for the general public.
  • Next week, we’ll talk about how advertising can be used to make disability normal, more about awareness campaigns and how advertising directed at disabled people is different from that directed at the mainstream (non-disabled) public.