MAR 22, 2024

The 'About / Include' Conundrum of Disability Advertising


John Harris, President & CEO of Worldwide Partners, a global network of independent agencies, and I exchanged emails last week about the recent World Down Syndrome Day 'Assume That I Can' commercial (produced by New York agency Small and Indiana Production). Given everything we're endeavouring to 'do' with Doable (the first creative agency founded and staffed by talent with disabilities and a member of Worldwide Partners), John asked what my view on this work was - I'm sure because of how critical we at Doable have been about disability focussed work in the past.

Let me be clear before I go on - and I say this as a proud member of the disabled community personally, this work is good, maybe even great. It asks a non-disabled audience some tough questions, maybe even prompts a little discomfort and most importantly, represents the Down Syndrome community in a long-overdue, very real way. I'll leave it to others to comment on how beautifully produced it is, and how awesome the original music performed by Sting is, all of which is absolutely true.

But I still have a problem...

Not a problem in and of itself with this work, but a problem because in a world so focussed on inclusivity, this is another ad 'about' disability, not an ad that simply 'includes' disability. 

Ads 'about' disability are undeniably important, when so much education is still required to ensure disability truly takes its rightful place at the high-profile DEI table. And, to deal with the seemingly ubiquitous information outages, myths and misconceptions about disability in its wide and varied forms, in the non-disabled population.

I think the 'Assume That I Can' ad through its single-mindedness, creativity and avoidance of the Ableist tropes all too often found in the media, shows we're at least approaching a better place with such 'about' disability ads.

But... and it's a significant 'but', we're still a million miles away from ads that successfully normalise disability by simply 'including' it in portrayals of everyday life. Significant because it's only these ads that will finally move the inclusivity needle for the disabled community.

Where's the breakfast cereal ad depicting a happy, normal family at the breakfast table, where one of the children just so happens to be visually impaired? Where's the automotive ad in which we just so happen to see Mom or Dad loading their daughter's wheelchair into the family 7-seater - not as a big deal, but just part of the routine?

It troubles me that most often, whenever we show disability in advertising, we have to point it out . We ask our audiences to 'look at this inspirational disabled athlete' or 'look at this brave little child', when take it from me, in real disabled life most days pass by without inspiration or bravery, but very few pass by without enjoying our breakfast or a drive in the car.

In recent years there have been a few notable exceptions. Specifically to my mind, Visit Florida's two beautiful spots from 2022, produced by fellow Worldwide Partners agency SPARK. This work assimilated both mobility and sensory disability, seamlessly and elegantly into an entirely non-disability specific creative execution. Thereby offering us a definitive, but sadly very rare, disability 'include'.

Images from Visit Florida campaign

The point here in the context of the 'Assume That I Can' work, is that we must somehow move on from a Down Syndrome awareness ad that informs us that 'young people with Down Syndrome can drink cocktails too', to a liquor ad that shows us a group of young people enjoying cocktails, where one of them just so happens to have Down Syndrome. Imagine if every ad that featured Hispanic talent was only about being Hispanic? That's the conundrum right there.

Perhaps it sounds like I'm having my cake and eating it too, by appearing in any way critical of the agencies who are actually making a difference by producing important 'about' disability ads, when so many others are doing nothing at all. But it's not that.

It's that only 2% of all Primetime ads in North America in 2023 featured disability in any way, shape or form, at a time when 26% of the population were directly affected by disability.

Surely this is a number worthy of simple inclusion over specific explanation.

*Sources: Center for Disease Control and Nielsen Ad Intel, Primetime Ads.

About the author

Hugh Boyle is a Founding Partner at Doable, the first creative agency founded and staffed by talent with disabilties focused on marketing to communities with disabilities. 

Written By:
Hugh Boyle - Founder, Doable