Channel 4

Try harder, go faster

C4 says progress in disability representation in ads is too slow as this year's Diversity in Advertising award shines the spotlight back on this area

Maltesers: C4's inaugural Diversity in Advertising Award winner, 2016
Maltesers: C4's inaugural Diversity in Advertising Award winner, 2016

“Can you believe we’re in a world where we have to offer you a million quid to feature disability in your advertising?

 “Well, we are.”

 It was with that provocation that Channel 4 launched its first Diversity in Advertising Award six years ago. 

That 2016 contest set out the challenge for advertisers and agencies to focus on disability representation in ads.

Now, having championed six ground-breaking, inclusive and memorable winners representing diversity - from ethnicity to ageism - over the past five years, the competition is back - and back with a spotlight on disability once again.

This time, there’s a mission to re-galvanise the industry to try harder and go faster in improving the representation of disability in advertising. 

Uphill challenge
It’s a determination fuelled by new C4 research that shows just 4% of UK TV ads in 2021 featured disabled people. While that is an increase from 3% the year before, it is “considerably low compared to the 22% of the UK population who are disabled”, the broadcaster says.

And - shockingly - only 1% of ads showed disabled people in lead roles - registering no change at all since the first C4 audit in 2018, published in 2019. When compared to the size of the disabled population, disability is the least proportionally represented of all minority groups.

For C4, it’s personal. “We’re proud to be one of the UK’s most recognised and authoritative voices on diversity and inclusion,” it says. “It’s in our blood to stand up for diversity and champion unheard voices, so we put that ambition at the heart of everything we do.”

The Mirror on the industry study, conducted with independent research agency Tapestry, looked at the top 1,000 ads in both March and September 2021 and noted:

  • Which minority groups appeared
  • What roles they played
  • How they were being portrayed
  • What type of ad they appeared in
  • How long they were on screen for

Looking at the representation of disabled people, in particular, it found that 13% of disabled characters in ads were muscular or athletic, compared with 5% of characters overall, potentially reflecting the fact that 2021 was a Paralympic year. Disabled characters were also more likely to be well-known sportspeople.

Somewhat encouragingly, the portrayal of disabled people often as heroes or victims in ads had changed over the past year, with an “everyday” portrayal much more prominent. 

Yet, still, representation of non-visible disabilities, such as mental health and neurodiversity, was lower than that of visible ones which are easier to communicate.

“Our ground-breaking Diversity in Advertising Award has generated a huge amount of debate within the advertising industry since it was launched in 2016, “ says C4 chief revenue officer Veriça Djurdjevic. “But actual progress on improving disabled representation has been too slow and it’s time to supercharge our efforts, embrace the challenge and put disabled people at the heart of our campaigns.”

Everything to win
The 2022 award, which is open for entries until August 24, is once again offering £1m-worth of free airtime (which will include the Channel 4 YouTube channel for the first time) and an additional £100,000 bespoke social media campaign produced by 4Studio. A new condition is that the winning ad must follow the AdGreen guidelines provided by the Advertising Association, which are intended to help eliminate the negative environmental impacts of production.

The judges will also select five runners-up and Channel 4 will offer each £250,000 of match-funded commercial airtime.

“With this brilliant initiative, C4 has repeatedly shown how TV advertising can be a force for good: representing, inspiring, normalising and changing attitudes with some industry-leading creativity,” says award judge and Thinkbox chief executive Lindsey Clay. “So, wouldn’t it be lovely to think that after more than five years, the job is now done?If only this were true. 

“Diversity in advertising shouldn’t just happen when there is a million pounds in free TV airtime to be gained. Diversity in advertising is for life, not just for this award.”

Judges for 2022 also include Ade Adepitan, the TV presenter, Paralympic medallist and journalist; Bobi Carley, head of media and diversity lead at ISBA and Steve Lacey, founder of The Outsiders who will all be appearing in a Campaign podcast, in partnership with C4, in early August.

Fellow judges are: Sharon Lloyd-Barnes, commercial director at the Advertising Association; Zaid Al-Qassab, chief marketing officer at C4; Veriça Djurdjevic, chief revenue officer at C4 (chair); Gideon Spanier, editor in chief of Campaign; Leila Siddiqi, associate director, diversity at the IPA, and James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at Scope.

To enter and find out more, see here.

Take a look at the previous winners of the C4 Diversity in Advertising Award which inspire and provoke. 

TENA – The Last Lonely Menopause - AMV BBDO (2021)

EA Sports - FIFA21 – Midnight Ramadan League - Adam & Eve/DDB (2020)

Starbucks - Whats your name - Iris (2019)

RAF – No Ordinary Job - Engine, Rattling Stick (2018)

Lloyds – Get the Inside Out - Adam & Eve/DDB (2017)

Maltesers – Look on the Light Side - Adam & Eve/DDB (2016)


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