Calgary non-profit uses fake ads to show lack of representation of disabilities

Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities is asking the media to be more inclusive.

There are many ways advertising tries to question the status quo – even if it is one it helped establish – including running a focus group with fake ads designed to unveil the problem.

That’s precisely what Calgary-based agency Wax has done for The Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities (CSPD), a non-profit supporting people with developmental disabilities, in a campaign launching today for the International Day of Disabled Persons.

The campaign centres around a video giving a behind-the-scenes look at a focus group. Presented with fake ads for everyday products featuring people with disabilities, participants’ reactions range from bewilderment to unease, with one saying it comes off as “a bit of a stretch,” while another offers that it “just rubs me the wrong way.”

Their reactions highlight a problem with representation in popular media, which the focus group begins to grasp after being informed of the real nature of the campaign. The public rarely sees people with a disability represented in the media, making the content appear “unusual” when they are.

In its approach, the work echoes campaigns Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital has run in the past, challenging the stereotypes that persist in how people with disabilities are represented in the media and calling on the industry to make changes.

“The idea started with a hypothesis that people would be taken aback if they saw people with disabilities in a commercial,” says Nick Asik, CD at Wax in Calgary. “Focus groups are a great way to get raw, uncensored reactions from people who are there specifically to give their opinion, which is why we chose to go this route… Showing the focus group the reveal at the end also served as a way to transition the story from unease and misunderstanding, to one of acceptance.”

To address the issue of underrepresentation, the CSPD is leading the Visibility for Disability initiative, calling on content creators to change how people view disability by representing them more often in the media. Currently, fewer than 3% of characters on North American television have disabilities and, of these, 95% are played by able-bodied actors, according to numbers cited by the organization.

The campaign drives to, where creators across the film, TV and advertising industries are being asked to pledge their support by signing an open letter. To date, around 100 organizations and individuals have signed the letter.

From the start, the goal was to start a conversation around the lack of representation of people with disabilities in popular media, says Mickey Greiner, executive director of the CSPD. The organization has not set any specific campaign targets, as it hopes to collect as many signatures as possible. As such, “Visibility for Disability” will run as long as there’s interest.

The effort is being pushed entirely through social media and PR outreach, says Asik, as the paid media budget is nil. Rather, the signatories will be sharing the initiative on social media and through their own professional networks. The campaign is receiving additional support from partner organizations, including The Easter Seals Society in Canada and RespectAbility and the Media Access Awards in the U.S.

Although this represents the CSPD’s first real ad campaign, Greiner says it has worked with Wax to design its annual report for the last 15 years. Its 2013 “Staple” annual report, in which it placed a staple in the centre of the report to demonstrate the challenges of living with a disability, won a D&AD Black Pencil.

Many groups have been “gaining momentum” in receiving more media representation, which is why the timing felt right for this year’s campaign, according to Greiner. “People want to see greater diversity in the kinds of characters and of stories they see.”