special needs representation in advertising
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Why Is Special Needs Representation in Advertising Important?

It is said that the average American sees 5,000 advertisements a day. Think back: How many ads have you seen in the past day? How many included someone with special needs? “Not many” would be an understatement.

Normalizing the appearance of people with special needs in the media would help destroy the negative stigma against disabilities in our society. That's why representation is so important. In this article, we explore brands who are doing it right.

Special Needs Representation in Advertising in Plain Sight

The companies who are humble about their representation do it right. If a brand comes out and says, “Hey, look at me I’m using people with disabilities in my marketing campaign,” it’s seen as just that “using people with disabilities.”  

Jay Walker-Smith, who is confined to a wheelchair and a disability advocate said it best in this article: “Forget the admiration. Forget the pity. No more pulling at heartstrings or romanticizing the disability. Remember, we are not all super-gimps.”

Here are a few brands with uplifting and empowering special needs representation in advertising:

Honey Maid “This is Wholesome” Campaign

Honey Maid’s “This is Wholesome” Campaign in 2015 broke a lot of barriers. It pointed out that families who eat Honey Maid come in many shapes, colors and sizes. Some parents have gotten divorced, some children have been adopted, some parents are gay. This message stands out among numerous commercials that depict the perfect nuclear family with a dog and a cat, the same color family depending on the target market.

The commercial below is a touching moment between a mother and daughter. It even includes a quick easy recipe for apple cheddar melts, then ends with the tagline “This is wholesome.”

The commercial does not focus on the wheelchair. No one uses the word “handicapped.” The camera does not zoom in on the chair. It just is and that is wholesome.

Nordstrom's Special Needs Representation

Ok so, there are several examples of special needs representation in clothing advertisements. They mostly portray children with Down Syndrome and people with crutches or wheelchairs. You can easily find them with a quick Google. Among all of them, Nordstrom’s is a brand worth noting,

Nordstrom has publicly stated that one-third of their models must consist of an ethnic minority or have from a disability. No other company has made such a statement. They are doing the most efficient job of representation.

What it comes down to is that cuteness and beauty can be found in everyone. If someone tells you this child is not adorable, they’re lying.

special needs representation in advertising

Though representation of disabled clothing models may seem few and far between, the impact is lasting. See for yourself.

special needs representation in advertising

Special Needs Representation in Advertising – The Good It Does

If an advertiser must focus on the disability of a person in the ad, it should be done tastefully. Often talking about the product as little as possible is the way to go. Shine the light on the stories of those who have disabilities to raise awareness of the issue and start a discussion. Target someone with a disability as anyone else.

How Apple Helps Special Need Representation in Advertising

Apple is a company that strives for diversity. They focus on having a multicultural workforce, and on having employees who speak multiple languages, who come from many ethnic backgrounds, and who participate in a multitude of hobbies. Having such a diverse energy allows them to follow their “Think Different” slogan.

Special Needs Representation in Advertising - Sady's Story

These are both some of the greatest uses of special needs representation in advertising.

The commercial above focuses on what Apple products can do for people with varying disabilities. Smart Home can open the blinds for someone confined to a wheelchair. They can just use their voice to communicate, typing or reading to someone with an intellectual disability.

A blind man can take a picture of his son, a picture he would never see. It tugs on the heartstrings.

Not to mention the twist at the end of the commercial that no one saw coming, where Apple reveals that the narrator and editor of the video is a woman with a severe disability.

Special Needs Representation in Advertising - Dillan's Story

This commercial focuses on one of the many people who use Apple products. It’s a story told from the voice of Dillan, a voice he has not been able to use for the majority of his life.

He describes being an outsider who could not communicate with those around him, not being able to tell those he loves that he loves them, not being able to tell people about himself.

But, with technology, he can tell his story. He can tell people what it is like to be in his shoes, what it’s like to have Autism, to see wind and hear plants. This commercial even better by educates the public about Autism, which is rarely seen or talked about in media.

More footage below further explains the struggle of people with Autism and of their loved ones. His mother explains the difficulties of helping Dillan. She explains how to interact with someone who has Autism. She then elaborates on how having the technology helps the two of them alleviate their struggles.

With the advances in technology that help people interact with the world in which they live, there is only more to come. It changes the world for the better.

Apple has, with these commercials, done several positive things for the disabled community: It raised awareness of disabilities, created hope and created these innovations in the first place.

Wal-Mart - Up Close and Personal with Special Needs Representation in Advertising

Wal-Mart's spot "Work Is a Beautiful Thing: Meet Patrick” tells the story of one of the jobs created by Wal-Mart and what it means for the worker.

In the commercial, Patrick discusses his life, a life similar to many with intellectual disabilities, not being given the same opportunities, even having people talk to him a different way. Every day for him was a struggle, but he never gave up.

The joy he gets from working keeps him going, keeps him moving forward. It allows him to give back and interact with society.

Derrick Coleman’s Story Brought to You by Duracell

Before watching this next spot, think back to Super Bowl 2014, when the Seahawks are were facing off against the Broncos. The following commercial comes on, the only Super Bowl commercial on this list.

Derrick Coleman is the first deaf offensive player in the NFL. He was first diagnosed as deaf at three years old. He went on to play UCLA, then for the Seahawks in 2013, A tremendous achievement for anyone, disabled or not.

A great thing about this spot is that his story continues on the screen after the commercial ends, keeping with you throughout the game.

His story would not be made possible without the use of his hearing aids. Having a player who could not understand his teammates in the heat of a game would have been a lot more difficult.

One thing to note about this spot is that the airtime for just to show the commercial is speculated to have cost around $8 million. That is not including the production costs or the cost of the talent. That’s a very costly message but showing a deaf people that they too can be a football star – you can’t put a number on that.

Special Needs Representation in Advertising - Conclusion

Many commercials that have special needs representation give hope. Though someone may be different, that does not mean they cannot be a model, athlete or even a movie editor. That goes to show that they need the same products that everyone needs, and companies need to market to them.

Advertisements are helping educate the public about special needs. When viewers see people with special needs more often in media, they can better understand special needs and how to better accommodate them. When special needs are represented correctly, negative stigma associated with disabilities can be forgotten.

There has been a lot of progress made in special needs representation in advertising. Special needs representation is only becoming more common.  Companies will continue to better their understanding of how to portray people with disabilities, and we're eager to see what is to come.

Bonus: Music Documentary

This isn’t necessarily an advertisement, but this Smirnoff documentary is definitely worth a watch. To give the chance for musicians who lost their ability to make music, to do so with their freaking minds.  They could have easily have spent their cash on more commercials and magazine inserts, but they did something special instead. Alcohol brands are not known for their ethics, but Smirnoff proves otherwise.

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About the Author

Charlie Haskell is a student at UNT. He’s a huge DC comics reader and has a guilty pleasure of campy film. He is volunteering as a blogger because he saw the opportunity to help those that couldn’t help themselves. You can find more information about Charlie at his website www.beardedjustis.com.

Special Needs Representation in Advertising

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