Roundtable on Disability and Advertising, Part I
A panel of academics and industry leaders came together to discuss the topic of disability and advertising. In Part I of this roundtable, participants discuss many topics: defining what disability means from cultural, social, and legal perspectives; how disability is factored into design; how to confront awkwardness people have in talking about disability; negative representations of disability, but also positive representations that emerge when the disabled community collaborates with advertising creators; the story behind Microsoft's XBox Adaptive Controller Super Bowl ad; how reaching and respecting disabled consumers is good for business; advertising's power to change perceptions about disabilities; the negative impact of representing disabilities through the trope of inspiration porn; advertisers' missteps in representing disabilities; and how advertisements impact how people see disabled people as desirable and how disabled people see themselves as desirable.
ableism, adaptability, design, desirability, disabled, disability, diversity, inclusion, inspiration porn, representation, stereotypes
[Editors' Note: Sample advertisements included in the following roundtable videos are presented in audio description format in the Gallery of In-Video Illustrations below.]
The driving questions of this roundtable are introduced: What is disability? How have disabilities been represented and treated in advertising and marketing? Where do disabilities come into the advertising and marketing workplace? What advice do panelists have for students, scholars, and practitioners as we go forward in a more inclusive, diverse, and culturally aware world?1 Panelists introduce themselves, their affiliations, and areas of interest and expertise.
One important topic to get things started is defining what the term disability means. Strategy director and advertising PhD candidate Josh Loebner (Designsensory and Clemson University) begins by saying that the definition of disability should be expanded. He explains that most people define disability in terms of a medical construct based on one's physical abilities. However, there is a cultural component to disability that is often overlooked. People with disabilities should be celebrated for presenting a range of abilities in this world. Able-bodied people may be seen as the norm, but disabled people have come to take pride in their differences and unique perspectives about the world.
Disability studies scholar Beth Haller (Towson University) notes that there are important legal definitions of disability. In the United States, there is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that provides standards for measuring when, where, and how disabled people are discriminated against. Laws like the ADA that define disability are there to protect people from discrimination and illegal actions.2 They also define accessibility standards. From her experience, some people who would never define themselves as disabled have used the ADA to help them obtain accommodations. Legal definitions, thus, might define people as disabled even if they don't consider themselves disabled. For Haller, it is essential to have legal definitions of disability that are very encompassing to protect the rights of as many people as possible.
Disability and media scholar Katie Ellis (Curtin University) agrees with Loebner and Haller about there being cultural and social definitions, medically-focused definitions, and legal definitions. Ellis is very interested in social reactions to disabilities, as well as cultural restrictions that are imposed on people with disabilities. Some able-bodied people might admire disabled people because they are perceived as inspirational, but that is not always how disabled people see themselves.
Ellis explains how there is a legal equivalent of the ADA in Australia called the Disability Discrimination Act that defines disabilities slightly differently than in the US.3 She finds the US definition to be more encompassing, which provides another example of how there are different social and cultural reactions to disability. Depending on the environment, the region, and the context, anti-discrimination laws around the world can vary greatly.
Kathleen Hall, Chief Brand Officer at Microsoft, says that physical disabilities are not the first thing that are considered at Microsoft. It first focuses on the needs of employees and customers in relation to their jobs and products. They approach design by making sure everyone can engage and use their products and services, which involves designing with disabled people in mind from the get-go. There is no set glossary. They do not design for an artificially pre-determined group of people of a certain age, socioeconomic background, or other set of demographic factors. Rather, they design first with accessibility in mind, which can then benefit many people.
One example is Microsoft's XBox Adaptive Controller, which allowed people with primarily limited dextral mobility to be able to play XBox. However, design went beyond the controller itself. One rule they established was that one should be able to open all packaging with two fingers and no teeth. If the packaging did not meet that standard, the design would not be chosen. This litmus test ended up being adapted by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) as a standard for people with arthritis. What might have been considered an original design for a smaller group of people ended up helping larger groups of people, including people with arthritis, and parents who can open a package while holding a baby.
Christina Mallon, Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at Wunderman Thompson and Partner/Board Member of Open Style Lab, agrees with Hall. In her work, an inclusive design approach is seen as the way to go because it focuses on usability for all individuals.6
Loebner moves to the importance of language in defining the concept of disability. Although there have been attempts to shift the definition of the word disability, the term has largely stayed in use and replaced older, pejorative terms such as handicapped or crippled. Some people have not embraced the word disability, but as disability advocate Lawrence Carter-Long asserts, we should #SayTheWord. Disability is not and should not be a source of shame. Practitioners should embrace the term along with the use of words like accessibilityand inclusion.
Concerns about disability are still relatively new and rare within the advertising and marketing world, but that has been changing. As Hall observes, just as there are broader conversations about people's preferred gender identifications, people are now more open to talking about preferences in how disabilities are referred to. Unfortunately, many people have been fearful of saying or doing the wrong things around disabled people, but by talking about disabilities more and more, embracing differences, and being open to learn more about how disabled people see themselves, there has been significant progress.
Katie Ellis talks about the awkwardness that still surrounds disability. She has mentored a lot of academics working on disability for the first time. Many are worried about the correct word to use. This fear comes from the traditional push to hide disabilities or focus on something else entirely. When people consider disabilities as a source of pride and not something to fear, doors open for innovative designs like the XBox Adaptive Controller and its accessible packaging, and adaptive clothing from Tommy Hilfiger.
Kathleen Hall notes that when Microsoft's research team moved to simple audio descriptors and surveys that were optimized for mobile devices, they were able to get more participants in their studies because they took community input into account. By thinking of disabilities from the beginning, they were able to design and innovate for many people.
Beth Haller reminds everyone that it is essential to think about parents of children with disabilities. They often see disabilities differently. For some parents, having disabled children is the worst tragedy that has happened to them and their children. Therefore, it is important to address the community of disabled children's parents to make sure that they understand the positive social and cultural side to disability. Many of these parents may hate the word disabled because they may prefer the label of special needs to qualify for accommodations at school, but that obfuscates the important issues at hand. Disabled children's parents want their kids to have access, be included, and have the opportunity to fit in. This is why Haller finds Microsoft's XBox Adaptive Controller ad to be very powerful. Kids and parents can relate. Both want kids to be able to play XBox games, and the focus of the ad is on the ability to play and not kids' disabilities.
Hall provides some background about the XBox ad. Microsoft's internal inclusion group, which works to make sure that they are representing communities in sensitive and accurate ways, advised that they delete a scene where a father becomes emotional when he says that he is happy to see his son being able to play video games with other kids. The inclusion group thought that this portrayed the father being sad about his son's disability, but Hall did not see it that way. Rather, the father revealed a real parent's feelings and emotions about the opportunity for son to be included.
Christina Mallon notes that it is very difficult to navigate representations of disability because there will always be people who will criticize the work for various reasons. In the work that she has done, research is done on the disabled community as well as what they want to see and hear. Efforts are made to understand what phrases are preferred. Sometimes it is "person with disability" or "disabled person." It depends on the context and it is important for brands to do their proper homework first.
Mallon then explains why one of her favorite representations of disability is a Vicks ad from India telling the adoption story of Nisha Lobo, a young woman who has ichthyosis, a genetic skin condition. For Mallon, the adoptive parents are not represented as Nisha's savior. Rather, they give Nisha a prominent role in telling her story in her own words. Her parents do show various emotions, but they are not out of pity. These emotions show care and pride in their daughter. If more ads were like this Vicks ad, Mallon believes many parents with children with disabilities would not be so fearful.
Hall appreciates how the ad embraces positivity on the side of children and parents, but she has concerns that Vicks, as a product, may not have the grounding to represent the story along with a brand message and thinks it's borrowed interest. Mallon agrees that some brands represent disabilities but do not have accessible products or do not have an appropriate place to represent disabilities. Some brands just tell a sad story about disabilities and don't even make their ads accessible through captioning or audio description. If brands want to support the disability community, they need to think about inclusion from end to end. Success is when people's hearts and minds are changed around what being disabled is like.
Talking about designing ads with inclusion in mind from end to end makes Beth Haller remember one of her favorite ads for Xfinity's talking remote for cable access. In the ad, Emily, a blind girl, takes center stage as she describes her favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. The descriptions she provides showcase how the product works. The ad uses the imagination of a blind girl to allow viewers to empathize and understand what it might be like for blind users to use Xfinity's product. For Haller, this ad is an example of effective collaboration where a blind girl is driving the engine of the ad about a product that makes her life better.4 When the disability community comes together with advertising creators, respectful and quality ads are born.
Kathleen Hall first explains how the XBox Adaptive Controller was inspired by external and internal stakeholders. An XBox engineer was disabled through his military experience, which helped propel the development of the product and the inclusion of the disabled community.
Beth Haller emphasizes how incorporating disability into advertising and product design is good for business. When she first started researching disability in advertising, she got pushback within the academic community because there were concerns about how such research was only benefiting an industry that focused on profits. Haller believes that such criticisms are shortsighted. Understanding the treatments of disability in advertising and corporate America more generally can help disabled people as well as businesses taking an active interest in them.
Unfortunately, Haller found that when disabilities are taken up in advertising, messages are not received in the same way in different cultural contexts. For example, when she first started researching disability in advertising, Haller collaborated with UK scholar Sue Ralph. Both came to realize that when disabilities were represented in advertisements in the UK, people thought such ads were for charitable causes. It took a concerted effort to retrain the general UK public to accept that disabled people could appear in commercial advertising, which was done through the increased inclusion of disabled models. In the end, though, advertisers need to be very careful about how they include disabled people in their ads. If ads exploit disabled people, there will be very negative consequences for the brand, but more worrisome, some people may continue to misunderstand disabled people.
Christina Mallon notes that ads create culture, so if we want to change how people look at disability, advertisements should represent disabilities in a positive way. Mallon didn't go into a career in government because she feels like she can achieve more change through advertising.
Government and public policy are too slow to create necessary changes. Advertising moves more quickly. Katie Ellis agrees with Mallon that media representations can have significant impacts on how people view disabilities as well as how disabled people view their disabilities.
Josh Loebner reminds the group that advertising is unique in how it frames disability within a larger context. Advertising is always contextualized and embedded among other media, so when disability is represented during the Super Bowl or Paralympics, the ads are unique and powerful due to where and how they gain visibility for disability. Representing disabilities during these important events can drive people to engage in meaningful ways. We need to always keep in mind the contextualization of advertisement representations of disability, especially if disabilities have not appeared in those spaces before.
Hall reveals that some people criticized Microsoft because they thought disabilities were not appropriate to include in the Super Bowl because the event is all about physical performance. However, Microsoft pushed back and said that its XBox ad had an important message about allowing everyone to play.5 Although Microsoft may not have had a significant return on its investment for running its XBox ad during the Super Bowl, that wasn't the point. The company wanted to create brand affinity based on its inclusive message, which pays off in other ways in the long term.
Haller discusses how she teaches about the Paralympics in her media and disability class. She shows students ads featuring Paralympians who signed endorsement deals. Once when Haller appeared on a BBC Radio call-in show, a man called to explain that he loved to watch the Paralympics because of his love of sports. He did not watch it because people were disabled. He enjoyed watching competitions and seeing sports that were different from others found elsewhere. Advertisers should not assume that disability and sports do not go together.
Christina Mallon explains the concept of inspiration porn, which is when able-bodied people are made to feel better about themselves because they feel inspired by disabled people's accomplishments for things that would not necessarily be deemed extraordinary. Not only does inspiration porn often invoke pity for disabled people, but such representations also prop up ableism, or the societal preference for able-bodiedness. Inspiration porn emphasizes and almost fetishizes disability in such a way that makes able-bodied people feel grateful for not being disabled. Mallon explains the trope usually includes sad music, and the disabled person rarely speaks for themself.
Josh Loebner finds inspiration porn impacting other minorities, too. Such representations undermine people's experiences and perspectives because they privilege people who already have advantages in life. He has found the worst inclusion of disabilities in advertising when there is an emphasis on how to make disabled people conform to able-bodied norms, expectations, and desires. More people with disabilities should be represented in advertising to help create change in how disabilities are seen in society, but that requires the inclusion of disabled people in the creative process.
Beth Haller sees hope in the rise of social media where bad representations of disability in advertising and media can be called out very quickly. Disabled people and their allies now have easier and more direct ways to talk back to the business world to remind them that they need to do things better.
Advertising often represents who and what is deemed desirable in society. Historically, disabled people have not been represented as desirable or sexual beings. Rather, they have been infantalized or seen as asexual. Has this changed recently? Josh Loebner describes the 2016 Maltesers candy campaign that showcased many disabled people talking about their romantic relationships with others. In one case, a woman in a wheelchair talks about her erotic adventures when making out with her boyfriend. For Loebner, this is one of the first ads that he has ever seen where someone with a disability brought up a sexual conversation in a positive light.
Beth Haller has observed the rise of disabled influencers on social media who have gained many followers based on their frank discussions of their gender and sexual identities. Social media have opened up new possibilities of representing disability in more diverse ways. How desirability is defined and represented in advertising is changing because people can now see many different body shapes and looks through social media. There's a more democratized view of who is and can be in an ad. Younger generations have different views on beauty, and having a range of body types in advertising is seen as progressive. This gives Haller hope for more inclusivity and changing views of desirability in the future.
Katie Ellis recently saw a Facebook influencer ad by Dylan Alcott, an Australian wheelchair tennis player, talking about his experience of wearing uncomfortable and ugly orthotic shoes growing up. Nike recently released a line of accessible shoes that also look cool, and Alcott shows them off in his hands. From Ellis' experience, Alcott's ad shows how brands like Nike are thinking of both form and aesthetics, giving disabled people more options similar to those available to able-bodied people.
Based on Christina Mallon's experience with design with companies like Tommy Hilfiger, many companies are nervous about their returns on investment. However, she notes that one in five people have a disability and four in five people know someone with a disability. By designing with function and form in mind, companies can attract a following. Doing such work should not be a one-off thing, though. If done correctly, the company will attract attention and build brand affinity. Brands need to push to incorporate adaptive designs even if there are risks.
Haller agrees with Mallon. In her research, she remembers how Target was a pioneer in representing disabilities in its newspaper flyers. One of Target's executives had a family member with a disability who asked why the company didn't have more disabled models, so they took action. From her following of this case, Haller learned that disabled models actually led to more sales than able-bodied models. Companies need to remember that disability allies may support a brand because it represents disabilities respectfully and serves the disabled community. They might need to pay a little more up front, but it is a worthy investment in the long run.
Gallery of In-Video Illustrations
Dr. Katie Ellis is Professor in Internet Studies and Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University where she researches disability and digital media. She has worked with people with disabilities in the community, government, and in academia, and published widely in the area of disability, television, and digital and networked media, extending across both issues of representation and active possibilities for social inclusion.
Six years after acquiring disability her sceptical interest in social constructions of disability was confirmed as a very real issue when she discovered the disability studies books on the top shelf at the library. Therefore, her research is located at the intersection of media access and representation. She is the author or editor of 20 books on the topic of disability, the media, and popular culture. Some of her books include Disability and Digital Television Cultures (2019), Trauma and Disability in Mad Max: Beyond the Road Warrior's Fury (2019, with Mick Broderick), Disability, Obesity and Ageing: Popular Media Identifications (2013, with Debbie Rodan & Pia Lebeck), Disability and the Media (2014, with Gerard Goggin), Disability and New Media (2011, with Mike Kent), and Disabling Diversity (2008).
As CVP of Brand, Advertising and Research, Kathleen Hall is responsible for stewardship and activation of the Microsoft Brand, creating world-class advertising globally, and delivering strategic insights that drive Microsoft's business decisions. Hall previously led Global Advertising and Media, where she was responsible for worldwide strategy, planning and execution of advertising. She led the consolidation of campaigns across the company, which increased effectiveness, impact, and efficiency, gaining credibility for Microsoft. Under Hall's leadership, Microsoft has garnered numerous industry awards, including the 2016 Clio Advertiser of the Year, 2019 Cannes Lion Titanium and Grand Prix, and 2019 Grand Clio.
Kathleen joined Microsoft in 2008 from Fidelity Investments where she served as Senior VP of Advertising and Brand. Prior to Fidelity, she worked on the advertising agency side, driving marketing strategy and execution for major global brands.
Hall is an executive sponsor of Diversity and Inclusion at Microsoft and is a member of the Ad Council's Board of Directors. She is a proud mom of twins and an avid outdoorswoman.
Beth Haller, PhD, teaches Disability Studies and Media Studies at Towson University in Maryland. She taught full-time in the Mass Communication Department from 1996–2020. She is adjunct faculty for the City University of New York's (CUNY) Disability Studies master's and undergraduate programs and for the Minor in Disability Studies at the University of Texas-Arlington.
Haller is co-editor of the 2020 Routledge Companion to Disability and Media (with Gerard Goggin of the University of Sydney and Katie Ellis of Curtin University, Australia). She is the author of Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media (Advocado Press, 2010) and the author/editor of Byline of Hope: Collected Newspaper and Magazine Writing of Helen Keller (Advocado Press, 2015). She was formerly co-editor of the Society for Disability Studies' scholarly journal, Disability Studies Quarterly, (2003–2006).
Josh Loebner serves as Director of Strategy at Designsensory, is a contributing writer for Adweek, and shares conversations across the country on diversity and inclusion in advertising. He is earning his PhD from Clemson University focusing on advertising and disability and has been a lecturer at the University of Tennessee and King University. Josh serves on the American Advertising Federation (AAF) Mosaic Council, the advertising industry's premier think tank on diversity and inclusion, and also serves on the City of Knoxville Mayor's Council on Disability Issues and has spoken at the White House. He is an inductee into the AAF Knoxville chapter Hall of Fame, served as the Diversity Chair for AAF District 7, and is recipient of the AAF Silver Medal. He is partially blind and visually impaired, which gives him a unique perspective, and he always clearly sees the best in everyone.
Christina Mallon is Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at Wunderman Thompson Global and Partner/Board Member of Open Style Lab (OSL) founded at MIT. Christina's work has received nation-wide attention and has been featured on PBS, Vice, Fast Company, CNBC, Vogue, Forbes, and YAHOO!. She has been asked to speak about Inclusive Design in numerous settings from SXSW to the United Nations. More recently, her team won the Smithsonian's Designer of the Year 2019 and Ad Age's 40 under 40.
Edward Timke is an affiliated scholar with the Department of Cultural Anthropology and instructor of advertising, design, and creativity courses for the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University. He is also Adjunct Professorial Lecturer for the School of International Service at American University. Edward is Associate Editor of Advertising & Society Quarterly and a contributor to ADText, including a unit on disability and advertising (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/736400). Timke's specialties include advertising and media history, international advertising and media, and media theory and research methods. His work focuses on the role of advertising and media in shaping how different cultures understand and imagine each other. Timke received a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the Circulating American Magazines Project (www.circulatingamericanmagazines.org). He has also received numerous awards and nominations recognizing his excellence in teaching and mentoring of student research.
Edward has lived with a permanent hearing disability since birth and is a proud user of boneanchored hearing aids. He has been recognized for his advocacy for students with disabilities, including a Certificate of Recognition by the University of Michigan's Council for Disability Concerns. With many allies and mentors by his side, he has worked hard throughout his life to prove a pediatric doctor wrong who said he would never amount to anything intellectually.
The editors would like to thank Kathleen Hall and Natalie Thompson from Microsoft for providing technical support for this roundtable.
1. For another discussion of these and other questions, see the following ADText unit: Edward Timke, "Disability and Advertising," Advertising & Society Quarterly 20, no. 3 (2019) doi:10.1353/asr.2019.0024.
2. For a discussion of the 30th anniversary of the ADA in 2020, see United States Department of Justice and Civil Rights, "30 Years of Progress: Access, Opportunity and Inclusion," ADA, https://www.ada.gov/30th_anniversary/index.html.
3. For details see: https://www.legislation.gov.au/details/c2013c00022.
4. See a short documentary about the making of Emily's Oz: https://www.adforum.com/creativework/ad/player/34509329/the-making-of-emilys-oz-with-video-description/xfinity.