Real Lives: Cashing in on your conscience

In adland, disabled people are suddenly 'sexy'. A cynical marketing ploy or an ethical stand, asks MEG CARTER
In the latest Teletext advert, a hip football supporter heads for the fridge for a beer to celebrate his team's win. Nothing unusual in that except that he picks up the beer bottle with his mouth and high- tails back to the living room - in a wheelchair. The fan grabs your attention, if only because it's so rare to see a disabled person used with a bit of subtlety in a commercial.

This week a new campaign was launched to encourage more advertisers to feature the disabled. Its aim is to make disabled people visible to the rest of the population. But there's more to it than altruism. Now, it seems, disability helps sell your products.

The Co-operative Bank is planning to feature disabled people in a new ad later this year. According to a spokesman, "Co-op positions itself to consumers as the ethical banking choice. Using the disabled is a business decision, in line with our ethical stance".

DIY chain B&Q is approaching disabled staff to feature in its ads. "There are 8 million disabled people in the UK - potential B&Q customers not being served properly," B&Q diversity manager Kay Allen explains. "But the business case is equally strong. The public responds well to companies taking an ethical stance." In other words, make the viewer feel guilty and they might get their credit cards out.

Both companies - along with Marks & Spencer, McDonald's and BT - are part of the VisABLE campaign to feature the disabled in ads. It also involves the launch of a nationwide competition to find more disabled models (like Amy Mullins who modelled for Alexander McQueen). The prize will be the chance to work with a new modelling agency, VisABLE Models.

US research shows that where advertisers demonstrate a positive stance on disability, they sell more products, claim the organisers behind VisABLE. To prove their point, they've done a similar survey in the UK. When asked if they thought an ad featuring a disabled person would be aimed only at a disabled audience, 70 per cent of UK consumers polled said "No"; 80 per cent said they'd welcome disabled people in ads. Just 10 per cent admitted they'd be "less responsive". A positive result, but in reality, the argument for featuring the disabled in advertising is hardly clear- cut.

Sceptics question the validity of such research: who'd own up to the un-PC view that disability is a turn-off? Says one senior ad agency creative who prefers to remain anonymous: "To suggest advertising raises disability awareness is bonkers. It's just about selling products."

Cultural commentator Peter York highlights another problem. "People often misunderstand the way advertising works. They think 'we're under-represented and its some form of discrimination'," he says. "But rather than reflect reality, advertising condenses it into an incredibly short timespan. You just see broad brush strokes."

Mark Lewis, account director at ad agency St Lukes, believes the disabled make for better advertising. He's the person behind the Teletext campaign. Another St Lukes commercial for Fox's biscuits featured images of everyday life - including a child with Down's Syndrome - as did a recent Benetton ad.

"It's delicate ground," he admits. "It's easy to be accused of getting mileage out of a guy in a wheelchair. Which is why we chose not to make a disabled person the campaign's focus."

Others have been more daring. Coca-Cola ran a commercial featuring a blind man at a football match, Fuji an ad with a disabled store assistant.

But it's risky. Shannon Murray, a model paralysed from the waist down, is pro the idea but believes not any old use will do: "The danger is perpetuating the myth that disabled people are 100 per cent reliant on others. Some are but many are independent." (She turned down a recent van ad demonstrating numerous uses for it - including a disabled outing.) "The ideology of a perfect life is prevalent in advertising -and who aspires to being disabled?" she admits. "But I believe advertisers could benefit. And many seem enthusiastic - to your face, at least."