CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/DISABILITY - Disability is an issue that most advertisers prefer to ignore, Jeremy White says

Last week's news that the Government wants to raise the profile of disabled people across its advertising is potentially far more than a politically correct move from New Labour. It could finally force the ad community to address an issue that it has consistently managed to keep out of the spotlight, despite moving to become more representative in other areas.

Last week's news that the Government wants to raise the profile of disabled people across its advertising is potentially far more than a politically correct move from New Labour. It could finally force the ad community to address an issue that it has consistently managed to keep out of the spotlight, despite moving to become more representative in other areas.

'It's tokenistic. Every so often there is a glimpse of, say, a wheelchair but this is very, very rare,' Margie Woodward, the equality advisor for Scope, the organisation that introduced awards for agencies which break this particular taboo, laments.

Scope's awards are a recent addition to a push for more disabled characters to be cast in ads. Leonard Cheshire, the organisation dedicated to creating opportunities for the disabled, has been running a similar drive for years.

Two years ago, it ran its VisABLE campaign to get companies to commit to using the disabled in advertising. Peter Maple, the organisation's director of public affairs, thinks that an update is needed and plans another push for later this year: 'We need to reach out to more corporates. It's one thing for people to make nice noises but another to actually do it.'

However, Maple concedes that not all the blame lies with the agencies and their clients: 'We have not succeeded well enough in putting over the commercial argument that advertisers risk excluding themselves from 15 per cent of their target audience.' And he's not exaggerating. One in ten people in the UK are disabled.

Woodward adds: 'We have buying power. We are customers. People should promote this as part of their sales pitch. The estimated amount of money that disabled people in the UK have at their expenditure is between pounds 33 billion and pounds 44 billion. Not just through earnings but services as well. We have money to spend.'

Both Maple and Woodward are eager to point out that they want disabled people in ads to be depicted as a normal part of society rather than heroes or victims.

A recent Coke campaign did just this. In 1999, Wieden & Kennedy's Amsterdam office produced a TV spot that featured a blind football fan enjoying a match helped by the commentary of his two mates.

Jon Matthews, W&K's creative director in Amsterdam, says: 'The difference between that ad and disabled people in other campaigns is that that person was not chosen because he was blind - he was chosen because he was a football fan. His disability is secondary. It produced a strong, emotional ad because of his intensity rather than his disability.'

Interestingly, the agency got feedback about the ad not from disabled groups applauding its sentiment, but from football fans - the target audience.

'He was part of a group of football fans, not part of a group of disabled people; as such he had a very natural role within that group,' Matthews adds.

He blames the low profile of the disabled in advertising on ignorance within the ad world - hardly surprising when you can count the number of disabled people working in UK agencies on one hand. 'It's just lack of thinking,' he says. 'Disabled people in advertising - like in society - tend to be ignored. It's abysmal.

'The more real people you represent in ads, the more disabled people you'd represent. Advertisers tend to do the 'we want nice happy images of nice happy people' thing. I enjoy more reality in my advertising.'



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