Hey, That Limb Is Missing! Debunking Disability Stereotypes In Advertising

From Michael Janger:

In advertising, the inclusion of people with disabilities is a double-edged sword: is it intended to highlight the disability, or the person, or both? If the disability is highlighted, it is usually because the business is selling products that accommodate the disability. 


For companies that do not directly sell to people with disabilities, utilizing a person with a disability in an advertisement is a delicate exercise, because popular culture in America today tends to exclude people with disabilities from its meme. The good news: this is not the 1950's, as people today are more aware of the economic power and influence of people with disabilities and their contributions to society. Yet if advertising practices today are any indication, people with disabilities still have a long way to go to be considered an integral part of popular culture. In a country where almost 20% of the population has a disability, this is a big slice of American society we are missing out on.

Two weeks ago, Target announced a special post-Christmas sale for kids' t-shirts ($5 each!) and kids' pants ($7 each!), through this advertisement on its website. It was just like any other promotion peddled by one of the United States's largest department stores. As with most retailers recovering from the Christmas shopping season, Target needed to clear out its inventory, and the $5 and $7 sales were meant to grab the attention of consumers and encourage them to buy clothes for their kids.

Rick Smith noticed something about this advertisement, only because of his own one-year-old son, who has Down syndrome. On the left side of the Target advertisement was a blond-haired kid wearing an orange- and brown-colored long-sleeve shirt. If you saw this kid and did not think twice, you were probably like most others who were interested in the shirt he wore and whether they should buy it from Target.

A Target sale advertisement for kids' apparel showing four children, including one with Down syndrome

This ad needs no caption.

Target did not highlight the fact that Ryan Langston - the name of the kid in the orange shirt - has Down syndrome. He has some of the classic physical features of this condition, but that was not the point of the advertisement. All Target was doing was selling kid's apparel, and using cute kids to send the message. They did not even announce the kid in any of its press releases.

Thrilled about the non-announcement of Ryan and his disability, Rick Smith wrote about Target's advertisement on his blog, Noah's Dad. Disability advocates and others saw his post, and in a matter of hours it went viral. Rick told me, two days after his post, of his amazement at finding over 8,000 likes on his blog post (it is now over 21,000 as of this writing).

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