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Media and Disability: How inclusive are our TV ads?

Only one per cent ads included representation of disability-related themes, visuals, or topics fou

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Mumbai: In yet another reminder of why we need to look beyond the label of ‘differently abled’, Indian athletes created history, by hauling 19 medals- their best ever- including five gold, eight silver and six bronze at the recently concluded Tokyo Paralympics. In a remarkable display of bravado, the Indian Paralympic athletes contingent even surpassed their Olympian counterparts, who also had their best outing this year.

Perhaps this is the cue we need, to stop slotting people into the ‘disabled’ box, conveniently forgetting there’s a person behind the label. While this is true for all spheres of our lives, there is no dismissing the fact that mass media, such as advertising, wields the power to shift narratives around disability at a much wider and deeper level than other tools of communication. However, advertising featuring people with disabilities lags far behind, found a recently conducted study by the US-based data measurement firm, Nielson. An analysis of the firm’s Ad Intel data, that looked at nearly 4.5 lakh primetime ads on broadcast and cable TV in February 2021 found that only one per cent ads included representation of disability-related themes, visuals, or topics.

Just three per cent of ad spend went to ads featuring disabled people or that were inclusive of disability themes in the creative, the study further noted. Most of the time, disability is absent from advertising, except when it’s focused on products that treat disabilities. Rarely do ads show disabled people in everyday life, such as working, parenting, household chores or enjoying activities, said the August 2021 report titled ‘Visibility of Disability: Portrayals Of Disability In Advertising’.  Pharmaceuticals, health care treatments, devices and similar categories made up nearly 50 per cent of the total dollars spent in disability-inclusive ads, the study found.

While they study is primarly based in the US, the scenario would not be very different in the Indian advertising landscape. Today, as the world takes baby steps towards a more inclusive, diverse and woke representation everywhere, advertisers have the opportunity to showcase people with disabilities in everyday life, engaging with the products and services brands offer. And it can do this simply by better reflecting the real lived experience of people with disabilities.

Some brands have managed to strike the right chord of empathy, without over-dramatising or trying to emotionally manipulate the audience. Google Photos had come out with a heartwarming real-life narrative of a visually disabled young man in 2016, who was about to undergo a corneal transplant and regain his vision after almost 15 years. The five minute film, created by Lowe Lintas, chronicled the journey of Amit Tiwari, a resident of Jhansi, who suffered from severe corneal dystrophy in both eyes, which left him almost completely blind when he was in high school. The film showed how with a little help from Google Photos' image search and organisation features, Amit was able to rediscover all those memories he had been a part of, but missed out on seeing.

Inclusivity, however, does not mean just an increase in representation in pharmaceuticals ads but across the category spectrum. While treatment and managing care are important aspects of living with a disability, an overabundance of these types of representations can reinforce stereotypes of people with disabilities. Hence, it’s important that life with a disability is portrayed as more than just prescriptions in creatives, by showing it as more relatable, while being realistic.

The 2016 ad by KFC for the fast food company’s ‘Friendship Bucket’ managed to tick all the right boxes on this count. The ad for its Friendship Bucket, featuring a differently disabled person shows two friends sitting in a KFC restaurant communicating in sign language. The ad celebrates all ‘unique friendships’ in an adorably regular manner without much ado and with all the cheeky warmth of a true buddy, ending with a voice-over saying 'Dost jitney alag hote hain, Friendship utni kamal ki hoti hai!'

Nestle too came up with an endearing ad for Nescafe coffee featuring a stand-up comedian who stammers in 2015, while an ad for Birla Sun Life had woven a story around a father and his autistic son. These are people who had, till almost a few years ago, seen no representation in mainstream advertising.

When brands from a broader range of industries are more inclusive of disabilities in their creative, they help balance the narrative and normalise living with a disability. And when the ad gets it right with its intent and execution, it has an impact on all audiences, not just those living with a disability.  

In recent times, JK Cement’s digital social media campaign titled 'Yeh Yaarana Pucca Hai' comes to mind. The six-minute-long film takes an emotional route to deliver a strong message on the need to create an inclusive infrastructure for differently-enabled students and access quality education to all children by providing them with equal opportunities. Through this campaign, the cement brand makes an effective pitch to society that every child has the right to education and how each one of us, as responsible citizens, can ensure the same.

The campaign was launched as part of a bigger initiative ‘Banaye Har Raah Aasaan’, where JK Cement built 251 ramps in one single day in schools across Jaipur, Rajasthan on 5 August.

Hopefully, the next few years will see a much more varied and diverse representation of people belonging to all sections and from different walks of lives, so that these ads will no longer be seen as niche or exclusive, but as a part of life. However, for any communication to connect with its audience, it should either be relatable, tug at our heartstrings, jolt us from our cocooned lives, or at the least hit a chord somewhere within us. If not, it could come across as contrived or worse, as an attempt at commercialisation of a social cause.

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