The government is giving the disabled a greater role in its ads, so why aren't more private sector brands following suit?
At the launch of the government's first Images of Disability annual report in London last week, minister for disabled people Maria Eagle urged marketers and agencies to make more frequent and prominent use of the disabled in advertising campaigns. The event was in effect a clarion call for advertising that is more inclusive and representative of society.
Eagle was able to point to the government's own laudable achievements. In 2003, more than half of all new government advertising campaigns have included disabled people.
And it is close to achieving its long-term target of featuring an image of disability in one in five of its ad executions.
Although the government should be commended for blazing a trail, marketers in the private sector have been far more reluctant to associate the disabled with their brands.
Only a handful of the many thousands of ads produced over the past decade have featured images of the disabled. Their minimal representation in advertising is completely out of balance with the actuality of their widespread presence in the real world.
There are 8.6 million disabled people in the UK, with a combined spending power estimated at pounds 45bn. This is a major market in any terms, but one that few advertisers are prepared to address.
'Disabled people are consumers like everybody else,' said Eagle at the launch. 'It is surprising advertisers haven't yet woken up to the value of the 'disabled pound'. Disabled people are the poor relations when it comes to ad campaigns. We can all look back with a sense of embarrassment at how few black people appeared in advertisements 15 years ago. I believe that in 15 years' time we will look back with similar embarrassment at the lack of disabled people in commercial breaks and on billboards today.'
Why, then, are there so few images of the disabled in mainstream advertising?
Is it a matter of prejudice and ignorance? Is it creative laziness or a more calculated neglect? And who deserves the greater share of the blame: client or creative agency?
HHCL/Red Cell managing partner Minnie Moll, who attended last week's report launch, thinks a major stumbling block is that much advertising is aspirational, but disabled people are not seen as such and do not fit in with the creative.
The belief that the more beautiful the people in a commercial, the more desirable the product, has taken firm root in some minds.
'We've always pushed against that and thought it more interesting to put real people in ads,' says Moll. 'Real people give you empathy instead of envy.'
HHCL recently scooped the pounds 3m Department of Work and Pensions brief to help change attitudes to the disabled in a campaign that breaks next year.
Clearly, the issue of disability is on its radar screen more than with most ad agencies. So how does Moll account for the dearth of disability images in ads?
'I believe there are lots of agencies out there that do put interesting casting proposals in front of clients - and clients are blocking them,' she says. 'Most of the blockages are not caused by prejudice. They come from people not taking the time to question judgment calls.'
Shell Consumer vice-president Neil Sansom sees it differently. 'It's probably not that brands don't want to choose disabled people,' he says.
'It's more that the ad agencies and commercials directors aren't often recommending them to clients.'
Sansom was marketing director of Freeserve three years ago when its agency, M&C Saatchi, developed the 'Catwalk' ad, which was shot by maverick director Tony Kaye. 'Catwalk' starred model and athlete Aimee Mullins, who has lost both her legs, and was awarded ad of the year 2000 in charity Scope's Give Us A (Commercial) Break Awards. …