Disability & Self Esteem: Advertising

I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.

I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.

As we’ve said before, disability never just is.

I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.

Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.


The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..

The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.

The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….

The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”

They kiss!

The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.

The singer croons: Together! Forever!

The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.

The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”

That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!

[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]

Berlitz: Bait & Switch


Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.

Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.

The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”

I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?

Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)

[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.

“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”

Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?

The entire advertisement is in ASL:

Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.

Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.

Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.

Driver: Which house is Bob’s?

Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!

Driver: Great!

He shrugs and starts honking the horn.

Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.

One house stays dark.

Driver: That’s it!

Passenger: Yeah, ya think?

They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.

Bob: Sorry.

PepsiCo EnABLE
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.

Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!

[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.

[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.

[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.

[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.

[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.

What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?

10 thoughts on “Disability & Self Esteem: Advertising

  1. I’ve actually been noticing lately that in many of the print ads that involve groups of kids — toy catalogs, Target ads that show a bunch of kids in different outfits, and so on — nearly every grouping includes one kid with a visible disability.

  2. I quite like that Pepsi one – though it would be nice if it was for Pepsi or something rather than “for” disability!

    One of the more effective examples I’ve seen is in K-Mart catalogues in Australia in the early 2000s (no idea if they still do this as there is no K-Mart in my area). They had a few child models with Down Syndrome mingled in with all their other child models, doing all the things the other models were doing – modelling clothing, playing with toys etc.

  3. I do love the Pepsi one, mostly because it’s based on a well-known joke in the Deaf community. (In the US, anyway; not sure about elsewhere.) It would have been better without the self-congratulatory beginning and ending blurbs, though; having a funny commercial with Deaf people in it shouldn’t be presented as, essentially, a charity project.

    The MADD one, though? Appalling. ::shudder::

  4. The Duracell Battery ads are all about people who depend on the batteries – one of them has a little boy with hearing aids playing with a robot or some other toy. I remember it being more about the hearing aids than the toy … but on the other hand I wear hearing aids and I do want dependable batteries so I’m not bothered by that ad.

  5. It seems like disabilities (or at least things that most able people recognize as disabilities) tend to be used to make points that aren’t meant FOR people with disabilities. Pepsi seems to be saying “hey look at us, we’re not jerks,” and the Quebec society seems to be asking for donations, support, or raising awareness…but they’re not really advertising to us.

  6. I like that bait-and-switch ad a lot actually, it’s like it’s saying “…hey, actually people in wheelchairs do have other dreams and goals besides just constantly thinking about being able to walk.”

  7. Ads like the Berlitz one interest me. It’s primarily about setting up an expectation and then surprising you; you see this a lot in ads featuring white cis couples, where the woman does something a man is “supposed” to do, or vice versa. I like them on one level, because they make visible our assumptions and incorrect stereotypes. The Berlitz ad could be seen as a response to the MADD spot, mocking it. These kinds of ads are really cool to show to freshmen in college, because they can provoke them to verbalize assumptions that normally go unspoken.

    At the same time, without that discussion, these kinds of ads end up entrenching the very assumptions they play off of. It’s implied that you’ll assume that the disability is the focus of “it could happen to you,” which makes that assumption into a shared cultural norm that is necessary to “read” the ad.

  8. I haven’t seen any of those Duracell battery ads, Jen. I’ll go a hunting them as soon as I get my laptop fixed. Thank you!

    Yeah, I keep going back and forth on the Berlitz ad.

    I didn’t get into print ads in this because I was only aware of the ad campaign based around disabled model Shannon Murray. I’m really surprised to learn that print ads are featuring kids with disabilities! The only other print ads I could think of were government ones. I will seek those out!

  9. What stuns me is, at least in the U.S., how few ads there are now compared to right after the ADA passed. Back in 1992 – 94, every newspaper advertising insert (department stores) showed someone with an evident disability.

    The Berlitz bait-and-switch was fun and also exceptionally memorable, which is the most important thing for an ad. The wheelchair, however, was a nasty 1970s clunker. An automative equivalent would be a 1964 Nash Rambler. So it depends on the audience knowing nothing about wheelchairs.

  10. The Toys R Us catalog that came with the newspapers around Thanksgiving had about 20 different kids shown playing with the different toys, and one of them had Down Syndrome. I can’t remember where I saw the Target ad that I’m thinking of — it might have been in the NY Times Magazine this week? — but it was one of those pictures with a bunch of kids of different ages and races standing in a Christmasy setting wearing red and green and snowflakey clothes, and one girl near the front had leg braces and crutches.

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