We Can Change Attitudes With Disability In Advertising

My industry gets alot of flack, and some of it is well deserved. Picture that annoying ad or jingle that gets stuck in your head from used car dealers. But some of the most powerful and connective advertising goes beyond a product’s features and benefits to brands recognizing, incorporating and advocating for societal shifts. Many advertisers are now weaving people with disabilities into brand narratives.

Do these advertising images that use people with disabilities help change attitudes? This was the central question of a talk held at the University of Texas, Arlington, by disability studies and media scholar Dr. Beth Haller.

Professor of Journalism/New Media and the Graduate Director of the Communication Management master’s program in the Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies at Towson University in Maryland, Haller is one of the foremost academic scholars of media and disability and an advocate for greater inclusion of people with disability in media. I was fortunate enough to connect with her for this Q&A to learn more about the presentation and what some of Beth’s favorite ads are.

You recently gave a presentation titled “Do advertising images that use people with disabilities help change attitudes?” What was your answer?

“I think they do. Because of truth in advertising laws, ad creators have to use real people with disabilities as models and actors. That is an important first step. And advertisers want people to buy their products so they are sensitive to framing people accurately in their ads so as not to anger potential customers. Also, if advertisers are trying to create an ad based in realism, they want to look authentic and that means representing a diverse community, and that includes people with disabilities.”

From your studies, research and teaching, what do you believe has been the biggest challenge for advertising to be more inclusive of people with disabilities?

“Forgetfulness. Many advertisers just don’t remember people with disabilities exist and should be represented in advertising. Also, advertisers don’t understand people with disabilities as a consumer base that should be part of the diverse communities shown in advertising.”

Alternately, what has been the biggest opportunity / advancement towards inclusion?

“Use of Paralympians/elite disabled athletes as ad spokespeople just like any other top athlete.” From an article about Paralympians and endorsement: ‘Being a part of Nike means that your sport’s taken seriously and you as an athlete are taken seriously.’ ~Marlou van Rhijn

“Use of disabled children and teens in advertising. The Changing the Face of Beauty campaign is a fabulous idea.

What would you say to marketing directors to encourage more inclusion of people with disabilities in their company’s advertising?

“Use casting directors who know how to include people with disabilities. Organizations like the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts,, EIN SOF Communications, and  Down Syndrome in Arts and Media, can find advertisers all the disabled models and actors they might need.”

How do you see advertising and the inclusion of people with disability evolving over the next five years?

“I hope most brands will have ads that include disability. People with disabilities use all the same products and services that non-disabled people do, so they should be part of advertising images like everyone else. Advertising represents our capitalistic culture back to us and it should include everyone.”

What is your favorite ad or brand and why?

“These are some of my favorites because they are effective ads that are also inclusive, but not syrupy or ‘inspirational.'”

  • Cingular Ad with Dan Keplinger

  • Liberty Mutual ad with Teal Sherer

  • Bob’s House – Pepsi Super Bowl ad

  • Cherie’s Verse, Apple iPad

  • Wells Fargo, Learning Sign Language

  • Emily’s OZ – XFINITY


Find out more about Dr. Beth Haller here.


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