It’s a national pastime to hate commercials. Only during the Super Bowl are commercials given any respect. That’s when the best of the best show up, or so they say. This year, the best of the best was a troupe of wiener dogs dressed in hot dog buns.
OK, every year can’t be great. But big-time commercials can also be seen as cultural road signs that often precede other media in spotting and exploiting social trends. For example, recently both television and print advertising featuring people with disabilities is on the rise and decidedly more prevalent than the inclusion of people with disabilities in television programming itself. Every expert I talked to, from advertising journalists to Hollywood talent agents, agreed. It’s somewhere between more than occasional to a trend.
Advertising has to break through the clutter and get your attention. These days it is being done with what Hollywood talent agent Gail Williamson calls “vanilla — the friendly black doctor, the overwhelmed soccer mom, that vivacious young woman trying to sell you a phone plan.” And what is more vanilla than Honey Maid Graham Crackers? That’s about as close to “Leave It To Beaver” ’50s blandness as you can get.
The Honey Maid people, knowing that no one will notice an all-vanilla cracker ad, decided to take a chance and appeal to real American families. They launched a campaign called “This is Wholesome,” featuring same-sex couples, single dads with tattoos, and a mixed-race military family, all eating delicious graham crackers. The result? Hate mail galore from those who thought same-sex couples were shameful, with comments like “this is an attempt to normalize sin.”
The company’s response was to take all of those nasty letters and mesh them into a huge sculpture in the shape of the word “LOVE.” When the response came out, it was reportedly the most shared online message on the face of the earth. According to Honey Maid, “In one month, Honey Maid went from a graham cracker that people loved to a brand that people loved.” This appears to be the near future of product advertising in America, or a big part of it — a turn toward reality. And it’s a trend where people with disabilities can be a potent part of the mix.
The ad agency reached out to disability media expert, Tari Hartman-Squire, to assist with authenticity and outreach. The very next “wholesome family” ad that Honey Maid released was called “Apple & Cheese Melts,” featuring a woman who uses a wheelchair helping her niece make graham cracker melts. You don’t notice the wheelchair until the very end of the ad — the reveal that makes the whole ad register. Honey Maid was inclined to search for a real family member with a disability based in part on the National Council of Disability’s parenting report, “Rocking the Cradle.”
In this case, everything was indeed real — the woman in the chair is Stephanie Woodward, a disability rights attorney in Rochester, New York, the little girl is her actual niece, Charlee, and the spot was shot in Woodward’s own kitchen.
What Has Changed?
So, why are things in Ad Land so different from 10-15 years ago? Josh Loebner, director of strategy at ad agency Designsensory in Knoxville, Tennessee, writes a popular blog about advertising and disability, www.advertisinganddisability.com. He has a clear-eyed view of both subjects. “Advertisers,” explains Loebner, “can no longer advertise a product’s features and benefits. Everyone knows what a Coke is. To make an impact, they have to make social and emotional connections with potential buyers. Honey Maid isn’t selling crackers. They’re selling a social trend that real buyers can relate to.”
“Nowadays,” he says, “ad makers don’t want just financial currency. They also want social currency. The latter brings more visibility and more engagement and can last a lot longer than just one impulsive purchase.” And in Loebner’s view, “Social media now means everyone is an advertiser.” Buick ads or Dollar Shave Club ads — same potential exposure. It’s a level playing field where the most remarkable material, from Funny or Die to the women-centric blog, Jezebel, rises above the endless mind-numbing GIFs. This limitless platform is as new to advertisers as it is to the rest of us, and when something like the Honey Maid campaign attracts millions of eyeballs, virtually for free, the whole industry starts buzzing.
So, great, the airwaves, both analog and digital, are now crawling with disability-centric ads? Not exactly.
Perhaps the country’s leading authority on this matter, at least in terms of quantitative analysis, is Olan Farnall, Ph.D., a communication and media scholar at Texas Tech University. In 2012, Farnall conducted an exhaustive survey of what he called “ability-integrated” TV advertising (AIA) and compared it to a similar study done in 2001. In a sampling of over 1,600 commercials, Farnall found that 29 made the grade. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? In 2001, the number was 15, i.e., half as many. Extrapolated from his sampling, there are far more ads out there than 1,600 and far more AIA ads than 29. Today is a huge ad universe. Counting in multiple repeats, there may be as many as 1,500 30-second spots airing a day!
Farnall estimates that the frequency of ability-integrated ads is about 1.7 percent. By comparison, in the last study published, the frequency of actors with disabilities in speaking parts in a given television programming season was .5 percent. Get out your calculator — that’s more than three times greater.
It has been four years since Farnall canvassed the TV commercial landscape, so the uptick from then to now is largely anecdotal. Farnall himself sees two ongoing trends. First, the increasing presence of AIA ads on cable television as opposed to traditional broadcast outlets. Cable shows, at least the good ones, try to break every barrier known to man, so seeing an AIA ad during Breaking Bad or Transparent doesn’t seem risky at all. To the demographic watching such cable offerings, these ads fit right in.
The second trend Farnell notes is a marked spike in the quality of such ads and their depiction of people with disabilities. In the past, commercials would normally paint someone in a chair as one of those two hoary clichés — superhuman or needy. Now, more often, they are presented like Stephanie Woodward in the Honey Maid ad — just normal people going about their daily lives
Barbara Lippert, a prominent advertising journalist who wrote the award-winning “Critique” column for ADWEEK for years and now has her own blog, MediaPost.com, says that she is “encouraged by the difference now in the level of awareness and sensitivity ad makers have for people with disabilities. It gives the ads both texture and reality.”
Lippert points to a recent ad as an example — Swiffer, maker of nifty new mops and the like. The ad, called “The Rukavina Family,” features a single-armed Caucasian amputee who boasts about his ability to “out clean” his African-American wife as their mixed-race kid cheers them on. This is the advertising version of a hat trick: a white-guy amp in a mixed marriage proudly doing housework. He could have been in a wheelchair and still got across the same message.
Wheelchairs in Your Living Room
There are dozens of other examples of this rise in the portrayal of people with disabilities, specifically in wheelchairs, entering your living room. The first such commercial of 2016 is for the youth-market deodorant for men, Axe. In a campaign called “Find Your Magic,” we hear the announcer say, “You don’t need heels when you ride those wheels” — and we see a cool guy in a chair whirling his date on the dance floor at the high school prom.
If you watched Super Bowl 50, only one ad featured a wheelchair — for SunTrust Bank — and “featured” here means the man in a chair showed up for a second or two, but a second or two in front of 167,000,000 viewers. A pre-game Toyota “Fathers and Sons” ad featured a football star talking about his double-amputee dad, and last year, Toyota and Microsoft ran powerful ads featuring double amputees using state of the art prosthetics. Double amps, I guess, make for arresting images.
Here are a few other current, wheelchair-referenced spots to check out: a Petco ad opens with quad actor Toby Forrest whizzing down the block being pulled by his frisky dog. Lego is about to launch a campaign that features a Lego-made kid in a wheelchair with a service dog. Target now runs both print and TV back-to-school ads with kids in wheelchairs and on crutches playing around in bright colored clothes like all their classmates.
And there are more: Nordstrom has ads and catalog photos featuring a series of people with disabilities, including quad beauty and Push Girl, Angela Rockwood. J.C. Penney has a guy in a chair getting married. A longer version of the Toyota “Fathers and Sons” spot features an off-camera interviewer asking a child in a wheelchair what he likes most about his dad. His answer: “He takes me everywhere!”
When these ads are masterful, they stay in your brain forever. Remember the Guinness Beer “Wheelchair Basketball” ad of a couple of years back, where only one guy in the game is an actual wheelchair user? Of course you do. It’s an instant classic.
Now some might see that spot, and many others, as “inspiration porn,” with the elbow-throwing guy in the chair being the inspiration. Adman Loebner points to another spot that might draw the same reaction. Made for Kimberly-Clark, aka, Kleenex, it is called “Unlikely Best Friends” and features a paralyzed dog and a paralyzed man and their man-dog camaraderie. “Chance,” the dog, hit by a car and close to euthanasia, is an ever-present reminder that, back legs or no back legs, life is good. Kleenex is never mentioned until the final graphic.
“Ah,” you’re saying, “isn’t that an overly sentimental scene?” Not really. These are real people, in their real home, wearing their real clothes, with real sentiments. As the man’s wife says about the para-dog, “It’s so nice when you come home, he’s running at you at the door, going so fast, his butt slides into the wall … it makes you appreciate life.” If you’ve ever been around dogs using a wagon for legs, you know what she’s talking about. They couldn’t care less that they are impaired. Chasing a bone is chasing a bone. Maybe there is good inspiration porn and bad inspiration porn. Put this one in the good column.
Williamson, who just happens to be the leading agent for actors with disabilities in Hollywood, has a unique vantage point on this phenomenon. Dealing only with performers, she, too, has seen a lot more business in the last three years. Before, she says, “the requests from the ad world were for a generic ‘disabled person.’ Now the breakdowns (i.e., casting sheets for actors) are getting both more specific and more real, to the point of wanting actual family members.”
“The difference between commercials and TV shows,” she adds, “is that commercials don’t require a lot of acting. Ads are about image, not acting.” The image has to be unquestionably believable. Today’s commercial makers don’t want a nondisabled person, no matter how famous, playing a disabled person. That would ruin the message.
New Money on the Block
Even if they are only image-enhancers, performers with disabilities were non-existent for most of TV advertising’s history. Hartman-Squire, one of the principals behind the “Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0” think tank, traces the emergence of ads featuring people with disabilities to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Levi’s ran a bold spot featuring a youthful couple on a walk when the camera pulls back to show the guy doing a wheelie. The same year a Paralympic wheelchair user, George Murray, was the face on a box of Wheaties. “For decades,” says Hartman-Squire, “a spot with a family with a member with a disability was a rarity. But the zeitgeist changed.”
Beyond the changing style of advertising, two other factors add to the current, and hopefully ongoing, growth in disability-related ads: Millennials and money. Millennials, according to Forbes, will make up half of the workforce by 2020 and are now the target audience for thousands of marketers like Axe or Dollar Shave Club — they have disposable cash and are not yet brand-loyal. To get to these youngsters, you have to go where they are watching, and that ain’t the CBS Evening News. It’s cable and social media, and the ads better have new style and new content.
Cool people in wheelchairs are decidedly new content, right along with heavily tattooed dads and mixed race couples. Seeing a wheelchair user dancing is something Millennials have seen over and over again at Coachella or Bonnaroo. In their minds, ads like this are simply catching up with their everyday reality.
But the Honey Maid or Kleenex people weren’t targeting just Millennials. They were going after you and me. You may have heard these mind-boggling statistics before, but the disability demographic in America, all 50-plus millions of us, has about $200 billion in yearly purchasing power. That seems like a lot, but there is more. What is often overlooked is that an ad featuring a disabled person is also trying to hook in all those close to that person with a disability, and when you add up all those uncles, aunts, and close friends, you are now looking at purchasing power of an awesome $3 trillion. That’s a lot of Toyotas and Lego bricks. It’s an ever-widening circle. One expert summed it up nicely. “It’s not a niche — it’s a blockbuster.”
Lippert points out that unlike certain politicians running for president, ad makers can’t afford to be exclusionary in a wildly heterogeneous culture like contemporary America. Demographics don’t lie. They need every Muslim, Millennial, same-sex-married wheelchair user they can find. Like that big Honey Maid sculpture constructed from hate mail, they preach love and acceptance of all people, an almost dissident message in such a fragmented, hate-filled society.
Well, that’s my pitch — did you buy it? The truth is, we shouldn’t get carried away here. The potential is great, but the number of ads showing people with disabilities is still infinitesimally small. As Loebner points out, “Ads featuring people with disabilities are still a novelty — that’s why good ones get talked about on morning TV shows and in Time magazine. The day they become widespread, they’ll lose their gee-whiz quality, which might be a good thing.”
In the meanwhile, we should all support the sponsors who support us by posting and sharing these spots on line, the fastest rumor mill known to man. Also, make the ad men happy and buy the stuff. I have never bought a graham cracker in my life, but if I ever get the hankering, Honey Maid is the ticket. I’ll get to the grocery store to buy it driving my new Toyota and stopping at Petco, Target, Nordstrom and J.C. Penney along the way.
I’m a sucker for a good ad.
Finding Mr. Wonderful
It’s the holiday season and the doorbell rings. Nick Magistrale, 35, T7-8 para, goes to the door in his manual wheelchair, opens it and an animated woman, mid-30s, instantly hugs him with a big “Hi!” Nick responds, “It’s wonderful to see you.” A man, Asian-American perhaps, follows closely on her heels, and Nick greets him warmly. It’s a party, a gathering, and one by one the guests connect, exchanging pleasantries, mostly about how “wonderful” everything is — the prime rib, a gift someone received, a sliced ham. And then comes the dinner toast. Sitting at the head of the table, Nick raises his wine glass with the others. “And to all of you,” he proclaims, “and the most wonderful time of the year. Cheers.” The room is filled with the clinking of wine glasses and voices raised in unison. “Cheers!”
What a spontaneous feel-good moment! — and it’s all carefully scripted, cast, rehearsed, and filmed for airing around the nation by Kroger, one of the world’s largest grocery retailers, with 2,600 stores in 34 states and annual sales of $108 billion.
The call for a 30-ish man who uses a wheelchair went out last September. Magistrale’s mother saw the newspaper ad in the Portland, Oregon, area. She called her son in Tucson and bugged him until he finally made arrangements to fly to Portland to audition.
Nick was hesitant at first, never having acted before. But he was perfect for the role, just the type of warm, diverse Millennial that Susan Ramsay, director of creative services for Kroger, and Julie Patterson Holland, head of production, wanted for Kroger’s in-house-produced TV commercial. “Our goal was threefold,” says Ramsay. “We wanted authenticity, connection and emotion, and we wanted to use actors and people who come across as real people gathering for a holiday dinner.” She wanted the cast to represent the kinds of people who might live in a city but be apart from family. The message would be warm, uplifting and real, without overselling.
Thirty-plus cast members showed up in Portland for the all-day shoot, meeting and greeting. “Nicholas emerged right away as someone who could act as a congenial host and leader,” says Holland. “He had a way of putting everyone at ease.”
When you think about it, he had just the right background and experience. “It goes back to my injury,” says Magistrale. “I always tried to make others comfortable around me. That feels good. That’s rewarding,” he says. It is not an uncommon experience for those of us who must adapt to such a sudden and unrelenting change in our lives — instant disability, wheelchair awkwardness, unspoken assumptions of others. Gradually we learn to put people at ease. “I was fortunate to work with such a great group,” says Magistrale. “It was a lot of fun. At first I was nervous, but I did a little research on how to keep calm. Basically the best advice was to just be myself. Don’t act.”
Magistrale was a 17-year-old senior at Lake Oswego High just south of Portland — a star football player bound for the University of Arizona on a full athletic scholarship — at the time of his 1997 accident. Besides his SCI, he sustained broken ribs, a punctured lung, pulmonary edema and was life-flighted to Oregon Health Sciences University. “It was a nasty accident. I had to be resuscitated, was pretty much dead. They brought me back, cleared my lungs of fluid, put me into a drug-induced coma and on a respirator. But I had tons of community support, that was the key,” he says, still grateful. Not only was he fortunate to live, he still received that full-ride scholarship — even though he would never play football again.
So now what? Will he try to capitalize on his 30 seconds of fame and go into acting? “I just need to look into it. I’m fresh meat. No idea what I’m doing. But it’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “In hindsight I’m so glad I did it.”
Perhaps the best part happened during the holiday season when the commercial was airing all over the nation. “I was in an airport, and you know how it takes longer for wheelchair users to go through security. One of the TSA attendants comes up to me, a mature lady, sweet and friendly. I was tired from traveling, had my head down. ‘I know who you are,’ she says. Everyone nearby kind of looks at me. I’m thinking, whaaaaat? ‘You’re the guy from the commercial. Mr. Wonderful.’”
“Yeah. That’s me,” he says.