Webcast archive: Disability and advertising, Part II

This week, we look at disability in advertising, including campaigns by Tommy Hilfiger, Apple, and the infamous LifeCall commercial.

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

  • Disability and advertising, Part II

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


  • Welcome to the second half of our conversation on disability and advertising. Today, we’ll be exploring the differences between ads directed at people with and without disabilities, awareness campaigns, and how advertising can be used to normalize disability.
  • Design and marketing are different depending on whether they’re directed toward disabled people or toward non-disabled people who provide care.  Let’s take adaptive clothing as an illustration.  Clothes designed for “Self-dressing” may not have the same features as those designed for “aided dressing.”  For example, shirts that close in the back might be easy for a carer to put on a disabled person, but the back closure might make it more difficult for the disabled person to put on themselves.  Another case in point are one-piece Jumpsuits that “have back zipper access to prevent the wearer from disrobing inappropriately.”  And since much of the adaptive clothing is designed for elders, it is may strike younger consumers as (to quote a friend) “FUGLY!”
  • Advertising directed at disabled people tends to stress independence, practicality (pants that don’t slide down when you transfer), comfort (pressure wound prevention) and style.  The ads aimed at care-givers, emphasize convenience and durability.
  • Two companies demonstrate radically different approaches to designing and marketing accessible fashion. In this Tommy Hilfiger clip, an adolescent boy in a wheelchair is getting ready for a family photo shoot. The camera zooms in on his mom, who pushes his chair and attaches the Velcro on the shirt sleeves of three different outfits. Everything is done to and for the boy; the ad is directed at caregivers like the mom, even though she is not the one who will wear the clothes they’re selling.
  • In contrast, photo shoots for the now-shuttered IZ Collection created by celebrity designer Izzy Camilieri show wheelchair users in classy, modern outfits. They’re found in a variety of settings, gardens, offices, and shopping districts, with no caregiver in sight. Everything that makes the clothing “accessible,” from alternatives for buttons to the cut of a pair of jeans, is invisible to the average viewer. The focus is on making wheelchair users look fashionable, more than improving the lives of people who assist them.
  • Over the last few weeks, we’ve compared the way disabled people are portrayed by charities run by non-disabled people, and organizations by and for people with disabilities. Awareness and fundraising campaigns designed by and for nondisabled people often emphasize the difficulties of living with a particular condition, for the person themselves and those around them. Viewers are meant to pity the parents of disabled children, who are “robbed” of their dreams of raising a “normal” child. Autism is a common example. Last year, Caudwell Children, a charity in the UK, created a “Locked in for Autism” fundraiser. Participants would raise money by spending 50 hours “locked in” a giant glass box displayed in a grocery store. The box is meant to represent the isolation, communication issues, and “stares” autistic people must face. This creates an incorrect idea of the experience of autism that incites fear in the viewer and increases the distance between disabled and non-disabled people.  In locating the problem with the autistic and fostering stereotypes, it re-enforces, rather than breaking down communication barriers between autistics and neurotypical people.
  • Public safety campaigns also send the wrong message about disability when they use “becoming disabled” as a possible consequence of drunk driving or negligence in the workplace. Besides presenting disability as something to be feared, these campaigns re-enforce the belief disability is a “punishment,” and that we are personally responsible for our conditions. In 2000, Mothers Against Drunk Driving came out with a poster featuring an accessible parking spot and the words “Every 48 seconds, a drunk driver makes another person eligible to park here.”
  • Fifteen years later, Quebec’s Occupational Health and Safety Commission made the same mistake with a spot on injuries in the workplace. In 60 seconds, an amputee at a public pool has to explain to a child why his arm is missing, a woman at a hair salon has to choose a style that will hide facial scarring, and a wheelchair-using dad is unable to hug his frightened daughter. (The people are portrayed as being ashamed of their conditions.  The last scenario is an inaccurate portrayal of disability in family life; of course, the daughter is used to climbing up on her papa’s lap and finding comfort there, regardless of where his arms are.)
  • Again, the ad campaign locates the problem with the disability, rather than public attitudes toward disability.  Perhaps more importantly, it sends an inaccurate message about the amount of control that front-line workers have over safety in the work place.  In reality, it is the responsibility of management to educate workers on safety procedures, provide safety gear, and enforce compliance with safety measures.  Yet the ad lays the responsibility on the employee to “speak up” about unsafe conditions, or else…
  • Efforts to make disability seem more normal through marketing products to disabled people have had mixed results. One early example is the ad for LifeCall alert system that was popular in the 1980s and ‘90s for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, one actor’s line – “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” – became a joke, a cultural meme, and the basis of several rap songs because of the actor’s exaggerated delivery.
  • On the other hand, in 2010, Kimberly-Clark Company launched an award-winning series of humourous ads for its Poise incontinence pads featuring Whoopi Goldberg.  Recent ads for incontinence products continue to attempt to remove the stigma associated with bladder leakage.  A Depends “under-wareness” commercial shows “cool” younger people modeling their briefs.
  • Might these campaigns have helped Annette Blackman, a 34-year-old woman who died in 1997 at the hands of Jack Kevorkian because multiple sclerosis had rendered her incontinent?  Do they really change the popular view of people who need these products, or do they re-enforce the status quo of a society that values youth, beauty and physical fitness? How many people would consider these normal parts of aging to be acquired disabilities?
  • Many groups have used social media to work toward making disability more “normal.” Crohn’s and Colitis UK started the “Get Your Belly Out” social media campaign to show people who have colostomies that they’re not alone, and promote acceptance of their bodies. Also this amateur video done by a couple of teenagers for Feeding Tube Awareness Week (2012) is definitely by and for disabled people.  It’s another example of the importance of peer support for people with disabilities.
  • Apple’s commercials are hit-or-miss. One clip from 2016 was produced by Sady Paulsen, a woman with cerebral palsy.  It shows people with a variety of disabilities using their iphones and computers to program hearing aids, use text-to-speech, track workouts, and edit the commercial you’re watching. We’re glad to see a “trendy” company look beyond wheelchair users as the classic depiction of disability. On the other hand, a second ad from the same year talks about a young autistic man who uses an iPad as a communication device.  The spot is narrated by his mother and a therapist, and Dillan is shown playing with toys, jogging, and playing basketball.  His main contribution to the story is to describe his life as “lonely” and autism like “being in hell.”
  • When disabled activists in Boston organized a disability pride event in 1990, the first item on our platform statement was: “Disability is a natural part of the human experience.”  The event, which took place two months after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was meant in part to announce the next stage of the disability rights movement.  We hoped to follow in the footsteps of the black power and gay pride movements, to build a common belief that disability could be both normal and a source of pride.  Since then, pride events have occurred in many cities, but the movement has not gained much strength.  Hanging on to the idea that disability is “normal” is hard, especially in the face of the growing popularity of assisted suicide and euthanasia.  And with less than 1% of advertising featuring disabled people, it’s understandable that people still don’t see disability as “normal.”
  • The best advertising campaigns show that it is possible to do it right, but that people with disabilities won’t be portrayed accurately unless we can tell our own stories, instead of having people view our lives through the lenses of fear and pity.