Matthew Keegan
Jan 2, 2019

Will APAC advertising ever tackle its disability deficit?

Portrayals of persons with disabilities are overwhelmingly absent from advertising in Asia. But what barriers stand in the way? And will anything change following the Tokyo Paralympics?

Tokyo 2020 and the Paralympic Games are not so far away: could this spell a new era for perceptions of disability in Asia?
Tokyo 2020 and the Paralympic Games are not so far away: could this spell a new era for perceptions of disability in Asia?

According to the United Nations, APAC is home to 690 million people with disabilities. They account for 15 per cent of the population; a huge consumer group. Yet you would never guess this from advertising in Asia, in which portrayals of persons with disabilities are virtually non-existent. Amid the ongoing discussions around diversity in the industry, the disabled, despite being the largest minority group of all, are frequently left out. But why?

“One reason is the lack of diversity in the creative industries themselves,” says Stephan Loerke, CEO, World Federation of Advertisers. “Many are not considering portraying or casting people with disabilities as they don’t live with a disability or are not exposed to individuals with disabilities.”

Past surveys have also revealed an ‘awkwardness’ some people feel around disability, which leads many brands to take a conservative approach out of fear of alienating their typical target demographics. “This needs to change,” says Loerke.

“Disability is not something to be afraid of and brands should be brave to represent and reflect society in all its diversity. The more ads we see that portray disability authentically, the more people will adopt a healthier attitude towards disability.”

Martin Roll, brand strategist and best-selling author of Asian Brand Strategy, believes historic taboos and misperceptions around disabilities in Asia are to blame. “It tends generally to be something that families and people deal with internally and at home. Therefore advertising has not yet portrayed it at larger scale, probably out of fear for the potential reactions in society.”

Unilever's Aline Santos speaking about stereotypes at Spikes 2018

Anuraag Khandelwal, executive creative director of Soho House in India, himself disabled, feels the lack of representation has to do with the industry’s beliefs around what they want to sell to the end consumer as ‘aspirational’. “Sadly, I think there is still a regressive mindset present when it comes to using physically challenged people in adverts or representing them in one way or the other.”

“People do not even think about us as, frankly, it doesn't affect their lives. There is not much attention given to the needs of the disabled and so very few brands cater for us. Hence there is no representation.”

Khandelwal is, however, strongly against representation just for the sake of ticking a diversity box. “I don’t want to see that. I want to see that the right representations are happening in the right forum.”

He’s a firm believer that it has to make business sense for a brand to feature or target persons with disabilities. “For instance, if a brand wants to do a clothing line for disabled people, there’s such a huge market for that right now. If somebody thinks of a brand, a positioning, or product like that then those representations will happen.”

However, on the few occasions persons with disabilities have been featured in advertisements, portrayals have often sought to do little more than reinforce stereotypes and clichés.

It is not the job of the disabled to inspire people. Too often the disabled are used as ‘inspiration porn’ where they are packaged in a way that’s used to inspire or motivate the public and then are just as quickly forgotten about.

“At the moment our ads and media generally perpetuate the tired narrative that people with disabilities are only objects of pity or inspiration,” says Angel Dixon, CEO of Attitude Foundation. “People with disabilities are multidimensional and they should be represented in that way.”

But how can advertisers get it right? First of all, by not using the disabled as ‘inspiration porn’, says Khandelwal.

“It is not the job of the disabled to inspire people. Too often the disabled are used as ‘inspiration porn’ where they are packaged in a way that’s used to inspire or motivate the public and then are just as quickly forgotten about.”

There’s a strong need to include more authentic and incidental portrayals, where a person’s disability is not the story. “I recall less than a handful of adverts featuring disabled people which centred the story around something else than the actor’s disability itself,” says Loerke. “This needs to change. People are not defined by their disabilities. Advertising needs to portray people as multidimensional, empowered actors, which stand out through characteristics such as humour, bravery, generosity or intelligence, not disability.”

For every campaign that has failed in its attempts to portray disability in a non-stereotypical fashion, there have been a few that stand out as prime examples of how to get it right.

One in particular was an ad called ‘New Boyfriend’ by Mars confectionary brand Maltesers. Produced for a competition run by Channel 4 in the UK as part of their Paralympics coverage in 2016, the ad featured a young woman in an electric wheelchair telling two friends about having sex with her new boyfriend and spasming due to her cerebral palsy. To illustrate, she spills a bag of Maltesers on to the table and all three women burst into laughter. The ad received high praise for challenging social perceptions toward disability and went viral, eventually turning out to be the brand’s most successful campaign in a decade.

The 2016 Maltesers advert

“In my opinion, the Maltesers campaign in 2016 was the best I’ve seen so far with regards to representing disabled people just as they are,” says Khandelwal. “It didn’t pander to stereotypes showing them as goody-goody just because they are physically challenged. At least from the small number of representations that I’ve come across in recent years, the Maltesers one is a very good example of how to portray disabled people.”

As with the Maltesers ad, evidence from the UK suggests that the Paralympics is a good way to spark debate about disability and actively change attitudes. With the Paralympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, will the same be true in Asia?

“I think the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be a huge opportunity for brands to really step outside of their comfort zone and think about inclusivity,” says Khandelwal.

However, he is quick to stress that the Paralympics should only be the starting point and that the conversation and representation should continue after the event. “Some brands try to gain popularity by using a disabled story to try and inspire people, but show no real genuine commitment to inclusivity. Brands need to follow through and it needs to be much more than just the Paralympics. But I do think that the Paralympics can definitely give brands in Asia the opportunity to start being more inclusive.”

Does the future hold hope for more inclusion? At the Spikes Asia event this year, Aline Santos, Unilever’s global executive VP marketing and head of diversity and inclusion, criticised Asia’s ad industry for being “too lazy” in portraying stereotypes, saying it desperately needs to step up on diversity. She highlighted the depressing finding that of at least 500 TV and online ads in the beauty and personal care, homecare and food categories that were served in China, India and Indonesia between January 1 and July 31 2018, not a single one showed anybody with a disability.

“We should be excited to show different people,” Santos said, adding that putting stereotypes to rest not only helps make for a “more progressive and much more inclusive society”, but is “win-win” as it is good for business too.

Others agree. “Advertisers and media makers in Asia need to start including people with disability for social good purposes but also because it makes good business sense,” says Dixon of Attitude Foundation. “53% of our global market has a direct connection to disability and when those consumers see themselves and their values represented in a brand, they are loyal customers. I hope that Asian countries can progress further in the inclusion of people with disability in media because those 690 million people deserve to see themselves reflected in the world around them.”

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