Tequila ad will cast the blind in a new light

Louise Jury meets the star of a glamorous TV commercial

It's one of those glamorous drinks advertisements with beautiful people doing sporting, creative, life-enhancing things.

Giles McKinley, playing himself, dives into a deep blue swimming-pool, makes a sculpture, laughs with his gorgeous girlfriend in the park, and sips tequila in a trendy bar.

He is the epitome of the ad-man's dream. And he is blind.

In a rare incursion of the visually impaired in to style-setting commercials, McKinley is the star of a new set of adverts which Allied Domecq hopes will send sales of its Sauza tequila soaring. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has hailed it as a significant boost for a group of people more often associated with white sticks and guide dogs.

The concept was simple: Allied Domecq wanted a major shift away from the idea that tequila is a quick, head-splitting shot to get you drunk quickly. The company wanted to emphasise the taste and the smell of its new, aged version of Mexico's favourite beverage. Who better to help them do so than someone who relies on smell and taste, having no sight to help? The solution seemed simple.

Putting it into practice was another matter. Equity has hardly any blind actors on its books and inquiries through organisations for the blind brought no success. Eventually, the advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury contacted the Radio 4 programme for the visually impaired, In Touch, to ask people to come forward. It received 50 replies, and chose McKinley. Everything he does in the advert is an activity he enjoys in real life.

Fabian Partigliani, from the drinks company, said: "We wanted to associate Sauza with having a good time and Giles captures that - he makes the most of life. He plays cricket and he skis - this guy is amazing."

When the agency wanted a glamorous companion for him at the bar, McKinley suggested his own girlfriend of seven years, Carla Hendry, a singer.

"So we had a real guy, real girlfriend, real story. It gelled," Mr Partigliani said.

Working with the RNIB was the best thing the firm could have done, he added. At one point, the screen goes blank. At first, the ad creators made the screen black, but the RNIB advised that black was not what blind people see. The screen was changed to brown instead.

It is the kind of detail that matters to the RNIB, which relished the opportunity to have input into a commercial presenting a blind person in a positive way.

Fiona McCarthy from the RNIB and visually impaired colleague Richard Lane advised on the ads from the early script stage. Opportunities for the visually impaired to act are few and far between. Much more common is broadcasters using a sighted person to play blind. They consider the Sauza commercials an important image boost.

"The agency really did try hard. They were almost a casebook of how it should be done," Ms McCarthy said. "We love to be consulted and will help as much as possible to develop the ideas. It helps us to dispel myths and stereotypes which we are concerned that any advert could reinforce.

"We're all used to seeing people with disabilities for adverts which are for worthy causes, but you don't see them advertising a product."

As for McKinley, he was delighted to take part. He is 34, lives in Hove, East Sussex, and manages and promotes bands and musicians including Davy Jones, one of the original Monkees. A friend heard the radio appeal and encouraged him to apply. "I almost fell off my chair when I got the job," he said.

McKinley has been blind since the age of 16, when he suffered a sudden deterioration of his optic nerves, but has tried hard not to let his disability hinder him. He wrote 400 letters to get his first job after leaving the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford. Since then, he has worked in advertising, as a business consultant and is now toying with the idea of professional acting. McKinley plays blind cricket, where the ball has ball-bearings sealed inside so it can be heard, and even manages to ski under the direction of a friend or instructor.

McKinley, who was paid a fee negotiated by his agent in accordance with Equity rates, does "watch" television: "I enjoy it. If I'm watching something and it ends with a quiet patch, obviously I don't know quite what is happening and I might have to ask someone."

He has already listened to his own ad, which will be screened for the first time on 4 August.

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