Paralympians Break The Ad Barrier was the title of a BusinessWeek article published in 2008. Just in the recent past, only three years ago, disabled athletes were granted a small advertising foothold of endorsements and sponsorships mostly dominated by gold medal Olympians. Major marketers including Visa and McDonalds, both longtime supporters of disability advocacy and awareness, wove compelling stories of disabled athletes into their general marketing campaigns centered around the 2008 Olympic games. Antonio Lucio, Visa’s chief marketing officer said, “The person we decided to feature, Cheri Blauwet, is not just a Paralympic athlete but an incredible female role model.”
Move ahead one year to an inspiring 2009 TEDtalk by double leg amputee Aimee Mullins. If you are unfamiliar with TED, it’s an acronym name for a series of in-person and online talks centered around Technology, Education and Design. In this particular video, according to TED:
Aimee redefines what the body can be. Her prosthetic legs are a combination of form, function and aesthetic. She encourages designers to change the idea of “disability” and the definition of beauty by bringing their talents to both the science and the art of designing prosthetics. The video lasts approximately nine minutes and I encourage everyone to watch it in it’s entirety.
All of Aimee’s various legs – from the womanly to the whimsical – look truly fantastic. What kind would you have, if there was a choice? With my prosthetic eye, I’ve always envisioned having a few fun “glass eyes” like the Terminator or a smiley face.
Advertising and the Olympics share a common bond of celebrating society’s accepted view of perfection. In the Olympics, perfection, and the difference between winning and losing is often shorter than the timespan between a heartbeat. This behind-the-scenes look at a make-up ad shares how far advertisers go for the ultimate facial perfection.
Now, in 2011, we’re moving beyond major corporations testing the waters of disabled athletes and endorsements to the potential for Oscar Pistorius, seen in the Nike ad above and a missing both legs, competing alongside those with two natural legs. Here’s an excerpt from the CNN article that shares how segregation still exists, at least for many in the disabled minority.
Hugh Herr directs the Biomechatronics Laboratory at MIT, a group responsible for a number of prosthetic innovations, some of which are making it via his own company (iWalk). He said the reactions to Pistorius’ entry into normal sport, from mere hand-wringing to outright disdain and dismay, reveal that we live in a “cell and tissue centric society.” He’s hoping that Pistorius’ high-profile competitions will help move us toward an evolution in social consciousness: accepting the validity and equality of synthetic body parts just as we do different races and genders.
Ford Vox, author of the CNN article states, “Sports represent so much more than a simple form of entertainment; it is a representation of our ideals as a society. Those ideals should include acceptance of the fact that that today, some human disabilities, when fought with enough ingenuity, teamwork, and passion, can become transformative.”
Advertising and disability are taking a step forward with L’Oreal and Nike proudly featuring Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorius respectively in their marketing efforts. These two, and millions of people with disabilities in their own way, aren’t letting others place outdated definitions onto their humanity, creativity and passion. There are new messages, strong voices and people ready and willing to share their story, who simply want you to listen and not turn away out of embarrassment or awkwardness, to find out what it means to be disabled.
Today we’re seeing disabled people compete against able-bodied athletes and move well beyond simply participating, to running faster than almost anyone in sports history. As the 2012 Olympics draw near, we’re starting to see glimpses of the five concentric rings emblazoned throughout the advertising world. But the question that begs to be asked is – in the industry where image means everything where will disability fit in?
I believe Oscar Pistorius is a modern-day Jesse Owens, where the once segregated athlete overcame discrimination to achieve greatness and break barriers, and that soon, people with disabilities will be portrayed in advertising on equal footing with everyone else in the world.