Disability in Advertising is Good for the Bottom Line

There has been a rapid increase in advertisements featuring those with disabilities. One of the early pioneers was Teal Sherer, an actress with a spinal cord injury.

By Arnold Cheng

Not long after this new year started, a commercial for Gatorade appeared on YouTube and spread like wildfire among the hockey and sports community. In its first week, it was covered by news media in both Canada and the United States, and was one of the most talked-about videos in the hockey community.

The video featured well-known NHL stars Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks, Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Scott Hartnell of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Ryan Miller of the Vancouver Canucks.

The premise was simple: The group of NHL stars would appear as a surprise at the local hockey arena, and engage in an impromptu sledge hockey scrimmage. It was not complex or elegant at all. Yet it was an instant hit.

Disability-related advertising: a rising trend
In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in advertisements featuring those with disabilities. One of the early pioneers was Teal Sherer, an actress with a spinal cord injury, who starred in a Liberty Mutual commercial that was released close to election time in the United States a few years ago.

Lately, Guinness promoted its beer using wheelchair basketball as a backdrop. It became an internationally known commercial and increased awareness not only in Paralympic sports and wheelchair basketball, but also highlighted the importance of including friends regardless of ability (while also selling beer).

In addition to wheelchair users, amputees have also started to dot the advertisement landscape, particularly with a Swiffer’s advertisement about how those with limb impairments can benefit from their products. Not to be outdone, the deaf community has also made inroads: Apple Inc. released a commercial featuring deaf travel writer Chérie King showing how iPads can help those with hearing loss travel the world. Meanwhile, NFL player Derrick Coleman, who is deaf, made a huge impact with his Duracell commercial and inspired other young athletes with a hearing loss—almost immediately before winning the Super Bowl. And finally, Petco released a commercial that does not point out disability on its own, but rather as part of the community as a whole.

Why the focus on disability?
One of the most surprising facts to many people is that individuals with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world. With an aging population and improvement in health care, one in five people in Canada alone are expected to have some form of disability by 2030. If you include their friends and family, this means one in three people in Canada will be affected by disability in some way. This is also one of the only minority groups that anyone can join at any time, without warning. And disability is not the only factor. If you include injuries and mobility, hearing or sight issues that are not usually seen as “disabilities” but are limitations nonetheless, that ratio grows even more. Not surprisingly, this amounts to a huge market.

Advertising is a profitable strategy
Research suggests that the market of people with disabilities is roughly equivalent to the economic power of China, with an estimated $8 trillion in spending power (including $590.6 billion in North America alone). Yet, historically this group was almost never represented in product advertisements—until now.

One of the most striking things about the commercials is that they showcase disability as something that is an integral part of society, and challenge the audience to think about it differently. By both highlighting disability and making it part of the non-disability world, the corporations’ message becomes clear: “We serve everyone.” That alone casts a very positive light on the company, and acts like a big welcome mat to a market that has been overlooked and underserved in the past.

What’s next?
This trend is likely to continue, as it gives a positive image of the companies involved. These advertisements can also help reinforce inclusive hiring policies and workplace cultures, and serve as inspiration for other companies to do the same. As well, consumers’ views on disability may change as a result of the positive images shown to them.

Companies will also be encouraged to consider ability levels of consumers in their products. This is already happening: Folgers has changed its coffee containers to include handles, which helps those without complete hand or grip function. Change will not happen overnight and it is a slow process, but this is a sign that things are moving in the right direction—and are doing much more than simply selling products and services.

Arnold Cheng is the production assistant for the Rick Hansen Foundation. He is also a wheelchair basketball player and former middle school instructor.

Reprinted with permission from the Rick Hansen Foundation.

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