Australian advertisers strive to be inclusive through representation of people with disabilities

There are four million Australians living with a disability, yet they rarely see themselves portrayed in advertising.

A spokeswoman for the Advertising Council Australia (ACA) said there was no official register on diversity in advertising in Australia, but US statistics from global data firm Nielsen showed people with disabilities (Pwd) accounted for only 1% of people appearing in Classifieds.

Data showed that ads rarely depict people with disabilities in everyday life, such as work, parenthood, household chores or play activities.

But there’s a slow movement happening with advertisers challenging people’s perceptions, showing how inclusion can benefit a business.

Advertisers invited to take up the challenge

Carolyn Miller, director and founder of Sydney advertising agency the Honeycomb Effect, said while she didn’t believe advertisers feared disability, it was a challenge they had to face.

“That is, using an offensive tone of voice, failing to align with community values, or being accused of symbolic placement.

“In many ways, it’s easier for advertisers to avoid using people with disabilities in advertising because it reduces the risk associated with the concept.

“But that’s also where there’s a big opportunity to be seen as an industry leader.”

Carolyn Miller says advertisers needed to start thinking about how they could represent people with disabilities. (Provided)

Ms Miller said advertisers weren’t thinking about people with disabilities because they just didn’t know who to talk to.

She said there needed to be a conversation around the creative table about how to portray people with disabilities in major ad campaigns as the demand for diversity grew.

“Advertisers need to ask themselves, ‘Does this brand or product provide an opportunity for a person with a disability?'”

“The problem with advertising is that people with disabilities are rarely featured unless a product or service is specifically developed to help them.

“However, advertisers and brand managers are increasingly aware of the importance and benefits of diverse representation within advertising.”

Talent agencies offer “Mr and Mrs Average”

Ms Miller said Australia also does not have enough agencies offering diverse talent.

Media Junction director Justin Walker said ad agencies would always choose the safe option.

Justin Walker photographed against a blue background
Media Junction director Justin Walker says talent agencies need to have more diversity in their books. (Provided)

“I think companies would embrace disability if they could, but there is a tendency when advertising to the general public to try to focus on what the public perceives as Mr. and Mr. Ms. Means.”

Mr Walker said a possible explanation for the under-representation of people with disabilities in advertising could be that they were simply not on agencies’ radars.

“A campaign to encourage inclusion could be beneficial here.”

He said he would think about it a lot more in the future with the TV series and commercials they produce.

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The success story of a great insurer

Proof that inclusiveness can translate into advertising success is BUPA’s TV ad, currently in rotation, which features an amputee playing golf.

The company’s health marketing guru, Naomi Morton, said people of all abilities use health insurance, so it was important their advertising reflected that.

A black and white portrait of Naomi Morton
Bupa chief marketing officer Naomi Morton said the company wanted to represent a cross section of the community. (Provided)

“We wanted each of the storylines in this campaign to tell a different customer story, to reflect the diverse needs of the community,” she said.

“Co-creation with people with lived experience is central to our design practice.

“It allows us to avoid making assumptions about what people with disabilities need and want and to produce authentic advertising material.”

TV advertising star Mike Rolls, a double amputee, said he hoped that when the disability became more familiar it would become “the least interesting thing about someone who has one”.

Mike Rolls plays golf with a child
Mike Rolls lectures in schools and to professional audiences.(ABC News: Provided)

“I read the script, it was quirky, funny and it shows people that people with disabilities can laugh like everyone else,” he said.

He said that some of the funniest, smartest and most interesting people he knows had disabilities, but they weren’t portrayed in TV commercials.

“There’s a richness that comes from their unique lived experience, and it adds tremendous value to our society when we choose to embrace those experiences,” he said.

“It would be nice to see a wider range of people with various disabilities on our screens, and it would be even better if it didn’t focus on that person’s disability.”

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Confronting a harmful culture of exclusion

Catia Malaquias is the director of Starting with Julius, a non-profit organization committed to promoting the equal representation of people with disabilities in advertising.

She said having people with disabilities in advertising could shape attitudes towards disability.

Catia sits at a table and reads advertising material
Catia Malaquias says the omission of people with disabilities in advertising reflects their historical exclusion from mainstream society. (Provided)

“It’s important to understand that for people with disabilities, the demand to be represented in advertising goes beyond expanding a narrow aesthetic.

“The failure to include people with disabilities in mainstream advertising is also a broader reflection of deep-rooted and long-standing prejudices, stigma and negative stereotypes about them.”

Ms Malaquias said in many ways the omission of people with disabilities from mainstream advertising reflected their historical exclusion from mainstream society.

Sandra Toby of Toby Creative in WA said she would be happy to include a person with a disability in a TV ad or print ad.

Sandra Toby wears corporate clothes in an office
Sandra Toby, of Toby Creative in WA, says some customers believe the representation of disability will “distract” the product. (Provided)

She said that unfortunately customers usually see the visual presence of a person with a disability as a distraction from their message and it was very difficult to argue otherwise.

“Like all prejudices, I think it will be difficult to change current attitudes. It can happen, but it will take a long time.”

The industry is committed to up its game

A spokeswoman for the ACA said that since diversity and inclusion is essential for the industry, they launched an industry-wide census on these topics in December.

The initiative aims “to inform and accelerate positive and lasting change in how the Australian advertising industry looks, feels and behaves around diversity and inclusion”.

Ms Miller said that while the exclusion of people with disabilities from advertising was not deliberate, she said she felt there was an unconscious bias that prevented people with disabilities from getting a fair representation.

“As an industry, we need to challenge ourselves for better inclusion. We are certainly capable of better representing people with disabilities.”

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