Twelve million people in the UK have a disability. Would you say that this is reflected in your daily life or in the media? It’s actually quite astounding to think that 2016 saw the first ever TV ad to use sign language air. But that it did, on Channel 4, during the opening ceremony of the Rio Paralympics.
You must have seen at least one of the three adverts by now – thankfully they didn’t disappear with the closing ceremony. Mars won the £1m free TV advertising space for its Maltesers brand by entering Channel 4’s Superhumans Wanted competition, and submitting the strongest campaign featuring disability and disabled talent.
The campaign forms part of Channel 4’s year of disability, which sees commitments to boost the on- and off-screen representation of disabled people. So far this has included doubling the number of disabled people appearing on the channel’s biggest shows, such as Hollyoaks, First Dates and Gogglebox. Speaking of the Mars win, Jonathan Allen, sales director at Channel 4 said they aimed to “…encourage more brands and agencies to approach and cast their campaigns in new ways to make richly diverse ads the norm rather than the exception.”
And the wonder is, was the absence of such diversity in the media as obvious all round before the ads ran? And why isn’t it the norm now? Why haven’t brands been quicker to spread their focus and be more inclusive?
In terms of the Paralympics, Tim Crow, chief executive of ORC sister company Synergy, says the event can still be a difficult territory: “The obvious route is human stories; but Paralympians want to be seen as athletes, not defined by disability.” Synergy’s Man and Machine work with David Weir and BMW, balances a positive message with brand association. The most important thing with the BMW and Maltesers ads? Everyone can relate to them.
Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the BPA says the contest offers brands a chance to make a social impact: “Brands and their staff and supporters can feel the benefit from both the traditional sporting association but also a genuine ability to be transformational in attitudes to disability.”
Moving away from the Paralympics, Asda is leading the way with changing everyday attitudes to disability, having put signs on the accessible toilet doors at 421 of its UK stores to raise awareness of “hidden disabilities”. This was inspired by the experience of Tonya Glennister and her five-year-old daughter Evealynn who has ADHD and autism, and was questioned by another customer after using the facilities as she “didn’t look disabled”.
The move has been welcomed by a number of charities who are now encouraging other supermarkets to follow suit. A photo of the original sign was shared on Facebook by Chron’s and Colitis UK and has been liked over 10,000 times.
A member of the Business Disability Forum, Asda has also created a quiet hour in some of its stores to help autistic and disabled shoppers. Music, escalators and TVs are all turned off to reduce the stress which can be caused by noise and disturbance. This first came about when Simon Lea, the store manager for Cheetham Hill, saw a boy with autism struggling to cope in the shop, and Lea sought feedback from colleagues and customers into how they could help. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Lea’s initial post on Facebook having been shared around 1,000 times and other stores now taking on the hour too.
The positive association of practical initiatives such as this has been an enormous PR win for Asda – and the important thing is that it doesn’t feel like it’s been done for PR’s sake. Should other brands wish to do the same, that’s an important lead to follow.
After all, it’s the lighthearted “every person” feel that must have won it for Mars with the Channel 4 adverts. Here’s hoping that more brands move to making diversity the norm, rather than the exception.