Disability and advertising

Images: Before Keplinger, the disabled were depicted as broken people who need fixing, but a revolutionary ad challenged that notion.

By Beth A. Haller

Originally published February 18, 2001

IS ADVERTISING POISED to be the medium that helps change society’s perception of people with disabilities?This question would strike most of us who study images of disability in the media as heresy. Advertising images are often considered a large part of the problem, not the solution.

However, what I saw in a Super Bowl ad last month gives me hope. Dan Keplinger, a Towson artist and the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary “King Gimp,” starred in a Cingular Wireless ad that got at the very essence of advertising’s ability to change attitudes, rather than stigmatize people.

By just being himself in the ad, Keplinger broke down barriers in just one minute.

Although Keplinger has a serious form of cerebral palsy that affects both his speech and mobility, his words confront those who would dismiss him because of his disability. “There is an intelligent person inside this body,” he explains.

After illustrating his talents as a painter in the ad, he also confronts those who might pity him. “I’m unbelievably lucky,” he says with gusto.

I believe this statement is one of the most important ever given to Super Bowl viewers. It rattles the worldview of those without disabilities, who believe disability is a pitiable millstone hanging around someone’s neck.

Dan Keplinger’s statement reconfigures a whole belief system. As a disabled individual, he feels lucky, happy, and proud of who he is.

“Too often the media depicts people with disabilities as a disability, not a person,” says Keplinger in Cingular press materials. “The Cingular ad, however, is about me as an artist and that’s who I am.”

Broken people… Consider how the message contrasts with last year’s Nuveen ad that featured Christopher Reeve. That ad focused on connecting with the predominant hopes of most non-disabled people, that the future will bring cures for disabilities. It conveyed an underlying message that disabled people are broken and should be fixed.

Keplinger’s message, however, is not about changing who he is, but reveling in how fortunate he feels. And this is a message embraced by many in the U.S. community of people with disabilities.

“There are just so many things this ad does for us – but the most important is to show that disability in and of itself is not bad,” says Cyndi Jones, a wheelchair user who is director of the Center for an Accessible Society in San Diego, Ca. “After all – I am unbelievably lucky,” she explains.

“Dan Keplinger’s presence in front of millions of television viewers pushed the envelope of inclusion. People with disabilities represent a large part of diversity that is beautiful, but the beauty of disability remains undiscovered in our society because of the old stigma that exists. This stigma, based on antiquated attitudes, is like a scab that is slowly but surely being scratched off. Cingular should be applauded,” says Greg Smith, host of “On A Roll,” a nationally syndicated radio and Internet program on disability lifestyle issues at http://www.onarollradio.com.

Why does this ad give me hope that advertising may help society change its perception of disability? Because of the old cliche that money talks.

When companies discover that models and actors with disabilities sell products, they use them as spokespeople.

Cingular is not the first company to find power in good advertising images of people with disabilities.

For example, in the early 1990s Target stores became somewhat of a pioneer in print ads by using adults and children with disabilities in their sales circulars that went to 30 million households in 32 states. Target’s vice president of marketing told Marketing News in 1992 that their use of disabled people in their ads was so successful that they could actually point to specific products that sold much better because a disabled person modeled them.

In addition, the early Target campaign that depicted children with disabilities resulted in about 1,000 supportive letters and generated the company’s most successful consumer response at that time, the marketing executive said in 1991. Target then expanded its disability images past wheelchair use to children and teens with Down syndrome, leg braces and artificial limbs.

Numerous other companies have featured people with disabilities in ads that have been well received by the American public. Both Levi Strauss and McDonald’s have featured people with disabilities in TV ads since the early 1980s.

Jones says the Cingular ad holds a significant place in advertising images of disability. “The Cingular ad is one of the best I have ever seen – going back to the ad that Levi Strauss ran during the 1984 Olympics,” she said. “The disability community is abuzz about this ad.”

Consumer buying power… The other way in which “money talks” through advertising images of disability is by helping corporate America discover people with disabilities as a consumer group with buying power. Many businesses are beginning to realize that becoming sensitive to the needs of disabled people leads to more business. The deaf community is an example of better images and better access to advertising messages leading to changes in consumer behavior.

When closed captioning became widely available to deaf TV viewers in 1980, it allowed deaf people to better receive product information via the most popular U.S. medium, TV. Closed-captioning advertising apparently builds much good will with deaf consumers because a study by the National Captioning Institute in 1995 reported that 73 percent of deaf people switched to a brand that had TV ad captioning.

At least 23 million Americans have hearing impairments, according to government estimates. Recent U.S. Census figures show that one-fifth of the U.S. population has some form of disability. With these huge numbers, advertisers are starting to understand how important it is to tap into that market. However, that recognition is slow and it is tied to years of negative images of disability in the media.

Charlie Winston, who keeps track of the disability press at his Telability Media Center in Columbia, Mo., says the image of people with disabilities as “sick” or unemployed causes advertisers to ignore them.

What advertisers don’t understand is that the large majority of disabled people have adequate financial means, whether from full-time work, insurance settlements, inheritance, or Social Security payments, says Winston, who is visually impaired.

Most important, whatever their means, people with disabilities buy the full range of products and services that every other consumer does, from laundry detergent to jewelry to cars.

Finally, advertising deserves praise for giving work to actors and models with disabilities. Unlike TV and especially film, advertising does not plop nondisabled people into wheelchairs to simulate disability. Advertising has to worry about the financial bottom line and government regulation of its messages and images as truthful. That keeps it more honest in its disability images.

As we all know, advertising images in general are far from perfect, especially when it comes to depicting women’s bodies. But Cingular’s ad with Dan Keplinger illustrates that advertisers are willing to show the diversity of human bodies.

It also showed millions of TV viewers that accurately depicting the human spirit is the best advertising image of all.

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun

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