Ignored no more: How the Shift 20 initiative is normalising disabled people in advertising
The initiative launched in Australia aims to shift perceptions of disabled people away from being objects of pity or inspiration, and instead as ordinary people doing ordinary things – eating breakfast, going to work and wearing undies.
If you were to judge by most ads you see, you’d think disabled people simply didn’t exist. They seldom, if ever, appear in anything. While the diversity movement has made significant strides around gender, race and sexual orientation, the world’s biggest minority group of all—disabled people—remain largely excluded, invisible and woefully underrepresented in all forms of public life.
Beyond the odd patronising tokenistic appearance, brands and the ad industry seem to want to ignore disabled people completely. The facts speak for themselves. Almost 20% of the population globally identify as living with some form of disability, both visible and invisible, yet only 1% are seen on our screens and in our mainstream advertisements. It's nothing short of shameful.
Not only that, but there is a huge financial incentive for including disabled people that is still largely being overlooked. The disabled community represents US$8 trillion a year in disposable income, according to estimates, and $13 trillion when including friends and family. And yet brands are continually missing out on this huge section of consumers by not representing or speaking to the disabled community directly.
However, at long last, change is afoot. Last month, to launch an initiative called Shift 20, ten of Australia's most well-known brands collaborated on a major project called the "Unignorable Adbreak," which involved swapping important scenes in their advertisements to feature a disabled person.
The reworked adverts from brands that included ANZ, AAMI, Bonds, Kia, McDonald's, Oral-B, NIB, Pantene, Uber, and Weet-Bix ran in the days leading up to a complete media roadblock during a Sunday prime-time slot on Australian TV. This was done to draw Australia's attention to the lack of representation for disabled people in advertising and launch an initiative designed to combat it.
Brands like ANZ, AAMI, Bonds, Kia, McDonald's, Oral-B, NIB, Pantene, Uber, and Weet-Bix all reworked adverts to feature disabled people for the ‘Unignorable Adbreak’ project.
Along with the brands that have changed their spots, TikTok, Virgin Australia, and Tourism Australia have joined as foundation partners.
Far from being a recent idea, the Shift 20 initiative was conceived by the Dylan Alcott Foundation and creative group Special over two years ago. Dylan Alcott, himself a former Paralympic tennis and basketball player, says the lack of representation and inclusion of disabled people across public life is something that he has struggled with for years.
"One thing I really struggled with growing up when I was a kid is when I turned on the TV, the radio, the newspaper, I never saw or heard anybody like me. I had no point of representation that I could connect to," says Alcott.
"Whenever I did see someone with disability portrayed in the media, it was as an object of pity, like a car crash victim who didn’t want to live anymore, deterring non-disabled people from speeding," Alcott adds. "And it's still like this to an extent all around the world to this day."
Alcott joined forces with Australian powerhouse creative group Special to form the Shift 20 initiative with a goal to not just improve the representation of disabled people, but to 'normalise' disabled people in advertising.
"Normalising disability on our screens sits at the heart of the initiative," says Peter Cvetkovski, creative director at Special. "It’s only by seeing more disabled people on our screens that it will ultimately help change the narratives that are told—challenging the perceptions of what disability is and what it can be."
In order to create real change, Cvestkovski realised it would require something bold that made a statement.
"It was imperative this did not just become a flash in the pan moment, but rather, to get brands involved and commit to working towards increasing representation, inclusion and accessibility for people with disability with a lasting impact," adds Cvetkovski.
Together with fellow creative director Adam Ferrie, and the Dylan Alcott Foundation, they collectively decided that to make a real impact, strength was going to be in numbers.
"We knew the more brands we could get on board, the stronger this moment would become for the industry and crucially, the disabled community," says Adam Ferrie, creative director, Special.
So, they pulled out all the stops by reaching out to Australia's major brand leaders, inviting them to a round-table where they pitched them the bold idea of coming together in a powerful ‘unignorable’ moment to help boost disability representation.
"The response was incredible," says Ferrie. "With most of the brands jumping on board right there and then, and as the ball started rolling, others quickly followed."
The fear of getting it wrong
One of the challenges the team behind the Shift 20 initiative have often encountered around brands being inclusive of disabled people, is the fear that they might get something wrong.
"We know that whilst brands want to include disabled people in their ads, they are sometimes scared they’ll get it wrong—so they don’t," says Cvetkovski. "However, we know when brands include people with disability, they build deeper connections with their audience, not to mention the positive benefits it can have on brand reputation and commercial outcomes."
Alcott is keen to reassure brands that getting it wrong is okay.
"I get things wrong all the time! It starts conversations, so you can get it right and can be more inclusive and accessible for everyone—including disabled people," says Alcott. "We want to work with brands who are listening to lived experience, who are always learning and trying to do better, and are on a journey to shift the needle together to become more representative at whatever stage they’re at."
Another challenge has been in casting disabled people for the roles. Traditionally, there hasn't been an open door or pathway for disabled people to get onto casting reels. As a result, they haven't seen themselves represented on TV in the same way other non-disabled Australians have.
"This lack of opportunity has held back many disabled people from pursuing careers in acting and the performing arts," says Ferrie. "As a consequence, the talent pool in this area remains relatively limited. This initiative is designed to change that and break down those existing archaic barriers."
We just want to be normal
A major aim of the Shift 20 initiative is to shift perceptions and break some of the harmful stereotypes that lazy portrayals of disabled people in media have created in the past.
"We don’t want to be objects of pity and we don’t only want to be seen as objects of inspiration. For example, from the hospital bed to the Paralympic podium," says Alcott. "We just want to be normal."
Advertising done properly in terms of inclusion of disabled people is, according to Alcott, listening to the lived experience of disabled people, but also understanding the massive opportunity of having representation of the whole population in advertisements.
Data from the The Research Agency found that when brands are more inclusive, businesses can also benefit, with 49% of respondents saying they were more likely to purchase from brands showing a fair representation of people with disability.
But the main goal of this initiative for Alcott is to try and shift perceptions around what society thinks of disabled people.
"We want to shift perceptions so that when society thinks of disabled people, they don’t only think of gold medal Paralympians or someone in an accident, they see a person, just like them," says Alcott. "The only way we can start to do this is by showing people with disability doing normal things; ordering a Maccas, opening a bank account, going to work, wearing undies—as you cannot be what you cannot see."
"Eventually, we want non-disabled kids to watch these ads and see someone with a disability like Eva, who features in our Weet-Bix ad, and think that kid isn’t lesser than me because they are disabled, but rather they are equal to me. And we want disabled kids to see it and think ‘I can do anything!’"
Not just a flash in the pan
To ensure that brands and advertisers will remain inclusive of disabled people and not revert to ignoring them again after the noise around the initiative dies down, the Dylan Alcott Foundation and Special Group have set an ambitious goal of achieving a more accurate representation of the wider population by 2028.
"This initiative has already generated a huge amount of conversation in the industry, so we know it’s something that naturally resonates with brands. The issue is, at the moment it’s logistically harder to execute in this way due to a lack of infrastructure to accommodate disabled people," says Cvetkovski. "However, we hope this initiative changes that, normalising seeing disabled people—not only for consumers and the broader public but also for us, the people in the marketing and advertising industry."
The Shift 20 initiative has already achieved the previously unachievable, bringing together brands that would appear to be competitors, coming together for the right reason. And the shift20.org website houses a wealth of insight, tips and best practice for any and every brand to join in increasing disability representation.
Change starts with a shift: 20% of the population identify as having a disability. Yet in advertising, they are only represented 1% of the time.
"We're also in discussions with industry bodies like the AANA (Australian Association of National Advertisers) and Advertising Council of Australia (ACA) on how we can partner with them to ensure we provide brands and agencies with even more ongoing support, education and guidance to ensure the industry is always kept abreast of the changing face of disability inclusion and representation," says Ferrie.
Meanwhile, Alcott is hopeful of the day when initiatives like Shift 20 won't even be necessary.
"I can't wait to look back in five years and think we don't even need to do it anymore, representation is just normal now and we get the same opportunities as everybody else. And we’re confident that can happen, and brands and advertisers will start to build inclusion into their briefs and casting plans."
And on a wider scale, Alcott hopes it will encourage people to have a different perspective.
"So you might then hire someone in your business with a disability or see someone in a bar that is blind or deaf and ask them on a date," adds Alcott. "The impact so far has been massive and we can’t wait to see where it takes us all. But most importantly takes us all together, co-designing every step of the way."
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