The Art of Advertising by Jan Ditchfield

(This blog post is personal. They are my real thoughts. Mine and mine alone.)

Advertising is the art of making whole lies out of half truths.  ~Edgar A. Shoaff

It stands to reason that coming out of a Paralympic year we’d see an increase in mainstream advertising using persons with disabilities in commercials and print campaigns. This year my feeds were inundated with spots, ads and conversations about equality and mainstream recognition. Working in the world of para, you tend to seek out examples of this and get lost in the belief that if you are seeing it, then everyone must be; positive examples of persons with disabilities. What we tend to forget is that we have knowledge of this industry and the community which the average viewer doesn’t. We’re actively seeking out this information instead of waiting for it to be presented to us. The average viewer isn’t doing the same. We have knowledge on the backgrounds of the talent who have been cast. The average viewer doesn’t. It’s the average viewer that mainstream advertising is targeting, not those of us who are already converted. And when you step outside of our circle and look at the use of persons with a disability in marketing campaigns from that vantage point, you are greeted with a shockingly different perspective.

Adventitious versus congenital. Two words that are part of my daily vocabulary in work and in life. In layman’s terms; acquired versus born with. In mainstream advertising themes; the hero versus the joke. People with disabilities are portrayed in one of two ways in advertising; the person who has overcome their disability and gone on to inspire others with their heroic efforts or as the butt of a joke, where their disability is used as way to elicit laughter from the targeted audience. The adventitious disability is revered and the congenital, mocked.

It got me wondering why this is? Are we as a society comfortable dealing with the idea that an able-bodied person can rise above crisis and tragedy to go forward to in life, battered but not broken? Is the notion of congenital disability so overwhelming for us to understand, that we resort to laughter as a fear based reaction? It’s hard to say, but the line has been clearly drawn in the sand when it comes to examples of this.

This summer, the Canadian Paralympic Committee released a series of commercials to entice mainstream support from Canadians and also encourage new people to get involved in para-sport. The most famous commercial that was released was called, “Unstoppable”, that featured a below the knee amputee running backwards around a track at night through a series of vignettes including a rehab centre, a hospital operating room and finally back through the mythical car accident that brought him to para-sport. It is powerful and a story that grabs your intention immediately. The “hero runner”, as the character is named in the script, is one of Canada’s top short track runners, whose disability is congenital, but that information would not be known to the general audience. Would he be still seen as a hero if they filmed the story differently? Would running through a series of vignettes that depicted that  journey hold the same powerful message of heroics as the ones depicted in the final commercial?

Recently in the USA, Cumberland Farms released a commercial called “Any Size”, that was meant to be a tongue in cheek depiction of the surprises that can be found at their stores. A man of above average height walks into one of their stores, unzips his coat and drops a Little Person onto the counter, who pours himself a coffee and then proceeds to speaking a boomingly deep voice about how great the coffee is, while his friend (who speaks in a squeaky little voice) picks him up and zips him back into his jacket to leave the store. The message here? We are using a person with a congenital disability to provoke laughter. Is it funny? No. In fact it is the exact opposite. Cumberland Farms has been blasted publically for this commercial by not only the LP community, but mainstream viewers of it also. Their response to the complaints hasn’t included an apology, but rather an explanation of how the idea behind the campaign is that Cumberland Farms delivers “one surprise after another”. If that was their intention, then they succeeded. They succeeded by surprising people with their lack of respect for the dignity of others all for the price of a cup of coffee.

What continues to surprise me is how we as an educated society, are still being force-fed antiquated ideas about persons with disabilities. That their definition can only be presented in one of two ways; as a hero or as a joke. A hero is defined as “a person who is admired for courage or noble qualities.” Courage can be found inside of many people. Nobility is what needs to be depicted in the tone of advertising, far beyond a Paralympic year. And can that be found in mainstream advertising? Does is have the same impact? It can and it does; watch “Training with Andy“. Persons with disabilities can be cast as characters in advertising that matches the companies brand values, without reference to heroics or laughter. Where a person is a person; celebrated for their achievements, qualities and individuality. I look forward to seeing more of this type of messaging, where the average viewer is exposed to a normal portrayal of a person with a disability and those of us who work and live in the para world, just get to say thank you for showing me a person. Because proof to point, it’s not the miles, it’s how you live them that defines a hero.

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Advertising by Jan Ditchfield

  1. When I first read in this blog and learned that the Athlete featured in the CPC commercial had a congenital disability, I wondered why he would give himself to such false advertising and play into the “Hero” role. But once I thought about it, i realized that he is a parathlete trying to promote his sport, and gain himself recognition and support at the same time. In this commercial, he is an actor, and as far as I know his name is not stated, and the ad never actually says it is his personal story.
    It is a shame that in order to promote his sport and gain whatever support he did, he felt he needed to participate in promoting a false image of himself. As the viewer, we assume we are being shown his story. He connect to him through the story portrayed. A act of omission is still promoting an untruth as far as I am concerned. Why isn’t his true story worthy of showing us? His story is part of who he is, and what brought him to the Paralympic games. Any story that leads to such impressive athletic accomplishments is worth sharing.

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