Amputees in Advertising: Have Changes in Presentation Altered Public Perception?

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By Judith Philipps Otto

For decades, people with disabilities were hidden away in closets. But in a modern society that pretends to be enlightenedlargely by advertising messagesthe American public is progressively developing a more widespread attitude of acceptance toward people with disabilities in general and amputees in particular.


We've come a long way in a short time, noted Beth Haller, PhD, associate professor of journalism at Towson University, Towson, Maryland, and co-author (with Sue Ralph) of Profitability, Diversity, and Disability Images in Advertising in the United States and Great Britain,* evolving within the last ten years from condescending "pity ads" to creations with cleverly employed wry humor and serious stopping power.

Cingular Wireless's 2001 Super Bowl ad leaps to mind: In the ad, Dan Keplinger, who has cerebral palsy that affects his speech and mobility, illustrated his talents as a painter and stated clearly, "I'm unbelievably lucky," challenging viewers to notice that "there is an intelligent person inside this body."

"My concern," said Haller, "is that we didn't see the ad again. Cingular produced this wonderful ad, and then we only saw it during the Super Bowl."

Lower-limb amputee Casey Pieretti's commercial got considerably more play: The Doritos ad featured a one-on-one basketball game, with one player (Pieretti) wearing a prosthetic leg. The two players were well-matched athletes, until Pieretti's opponent jumps and shoots and Pieretti cleverly creates his own advantage by blocking the ball with his prosthesis.

Pieretti not only passes the Doritos "bold and daring" test, but succeeds in making this a memorable ad that helps the audience perceive amputees in a different and perhaps more respectful light.

Most amputees--like disabled persons in general--want simply to be perceived as people first, rather than letting their disability define them. The Doritos ad reminds viewers not only that amputees can be competitive athletically, but that they can be creative problem-solvers with a sense of humor, and fun people to know--just like non-amputees. As Haller noted, "The little twist at the end, when he uses the [prosthesis] to knock away the basketball, was cute and funny, but not in an offensive way."

From 30-Second Ads to Silver Screen

Pieretti was an athlete before his amputation, and still is: Now, as a Hollywood stuntman, he often competes with able-bodied stuntmen for the same jobs.

Before his amputation, "I had a full scholarship for basketball," he pointed out, "and I could run a mile in under four minutes. Although I keep up with people now, I'm just keeping up; whereas if I was my former self, I would not be just keeping up--people would be trying to catch me."

Are people getting more used to the idea of hiring an amputee actor/stuntman for commercials and movies?

"Some people in the stunt industry won't touch me because I'm an amputee, I'm told," Pieretti replied. "But other stunt coordinators--usually the more established coordinators--will not let it affect them."

Pieretti pointed out that he is often hired the first time because he is an amputee, and they need an amputee stuntman. But because the same job often requires that he also perform the regular stunts leading up to the amputee stunt, he has an opportunity to establish himself, his capabilities, and his professionalism. And they rehire him later, for other jobs.

In additional to commercials, Pieretti's TV credits include an appearance on Angel.

"There was a fight scene," Pieretti remembered, "where a monster was supposed to tear the guard limb from limb. As the guard, I did some horseback riding and other activities before the fight scene where they ripped off my leg."

Pieretti continued, "This was the first time I had worked for this stunt coordinator, and it went so well that he immediately hired me again to double a two-legged actor, which is a great compliment to my talent."

Since his first professional stunt in 1993, Pieretti has worked on a variety of movies, including Windtalkers with Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater, and most recently as a stunt rigger on Spiderman 2.

In Windtalkers, Pieretti suggested how an effect might be improved by setting up a stunt where he arranged to shed his prosthesis during an explosion, which made it appear that the actor's leg had been blown off. With few people on the set aware that Pieretti was an amputee, the stunt was accomplished so effectively that many people watching believed that the stunt had gone wrong, and his leg had truly been blown off by accident during the stunt!

"My first big movie was Starship Troopers," recalled Pieretti. "The only reason they hired me was because I was an amputee. On that shoot, I doubled a two-legged actor until the scene where that two-legged actor had his leg torn off. It was a very physical shoot--lots of running, always on your feet, shooting 12 hours each day--and I was able to keep up with everyone the whole time. In the four weeks leading up to that dismemberment scene, they noticed that I was able to be a stuntman as well. When I completed the scene and they didn't need the one-legged guy anymore, a couple of scenes came up where they had questions that I was able to answer for them, so I ended up staying for the rest of the shoot."

So, it's a constant state of continuing to prove yourself in order to be able to succeed?

"Right. But it's like that for everyone," said Pieretti philosophically.

More Amputees in Advertising?

The use of amputees in advertising isn't new, but the frequency is certainly increasing. Since the early 1980s, Levi Strauss and McDonald's have featured people with disabilities in their TV ads. In the early 1990s, Target stores pioneered print ads by using adults and children with disabilities in sales circulars that went to 30 million households in 32 states, Haller reported.

Citicorp, Apple computers, Pacific Telesis and Nissan had also featured wheelchair users in TV or print ads in 199091.

The Haller-Ralph 2002 study, however, found that there has been "considerably more use of disabled people in ads in general during the last two-three years since the previous study."

The best part, said Haller, is that it's no longer a big deal. "It's become acceptable; nobody really takes notice and points out that there is a blind person in the ad, for example. I think the barriers have fallen since the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] has opened up society and there is less shame, so people are more willing to admit hidden disabilities.'"

Where most other areas of society haven't connected disability to diversity, advertisers have now recognized that disability is a part of diversity, Haller explained. With about 52 million Americans identified as having some legally defined disability, that amounts to a significant 20 percent of the general population--not only a sizeable segment, but a sizeable market for advertisers to consider.

As Haller pointed out, amputees and people using wheelchairs are actually one of the smallest segments of the disabled population, but "that's what ads want--a visible disability."

She added, "It's kind of an ironic twist that people with invisible disabilities aren't as useful to advertisers, who want the kudos for recognizing both ethnic and ability diversity in their marketing efforts."

Having developed this awareness themselves, however, marketers are now leading the general public to wider acceptance.

"Great Britain was much slower to move into putting people with disabilities into their ads," Haller explained, "partly because of regulations in Britain. But primarily, I think, it was because advertisers in the UK are really afraid that such advertising would be viewed as exploitation, or the viewing public would misunderstand the product as being associated with a charity. Here, once we got over the hump in the 70s and there was more disability legislation, we ended up with a much better understanding. Marketers began to realize that people weren't upset by having people with disabilities in ads--in fact, they liked it.

"Parents who have a child with a disability want that child to be watching TV and see another child who looks just like them," Haller said, adding, "It's understandable."

Haller pointed out that one criticism in particular is frequently aired regarding the appearance of disabled persons in ads: "Critics mention that these are the best-looking disabled people alive. But that's going to be true in any aspect of advertising. They're not going to use unattractive people from any public segment in an ad."

What troubles her more than the way advertising portrays people with disabilities, is how the news realm treats them, ignoring more important issues to marvel at the accomplishments of disabled athletes who excel, sometimes called "SuperCrips."

Focusing on the SuperCrip could be called the "backside of pity," claimed Haller. "It's elevating people for doing nothing. There are a lot of disabled people who don't want to be seen as inspirational--they just want to be like everybody else."

One newspaper, she reported, wrote a story on a wheelchair "athlete" who played bocce ball--the Italian lawn bowling game. "It was ridiculous!" said Haller. "There was no value to the story. Guy in Wheelchair Plays Bocce Ball!' So what? I swim occasionally, but who's interested?

"This story is presented instead of covering other issues, like people who are unable to vote in privacy during elections because they don't have Braille ballots, and why a huge percentage of polling places are still not wheelchair-accessible," she continued.

"I guess that a lot of the disability community will accept a SuperCrip because it's better than being locked out totally from news and advertising coverage," she concluded.

Disabled Consumers View Ads Differently


Marie Hardin, assistant professor of journalism at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, explored the reactions of people with disabilities to seeing other people with disabilities in ads, and found that disabled people are extremely sensitive regarding how they are portrayed. Her study, in the Winter 2003 Disability Studies Quarterly, "Marketing the Acceptably Athletic Image: Wheelchair Athletes, Sport-Related Advertising and Capitalist Hegemony," found that disabled consumers are also much more brand-loyal than other consumers--largely as a result of their reactions to ads that include people with disabilities.

"Participants reported that while they ignore most advertising, they are highly sensitive to positive, integrated images of disability in ads," said Hardin.

One participant in Hardin's study explained his lack of interest in advertising: "Maybe it's because there's not as many people like me in those ads."

Some participants were offended by the "SuperCrip" image some ads perpetuate--e.g., the Nike ads that focus on amputees who excel at athletic pursuits despite their disability.

Like the rest of us, not all disabled people are super athletes--yet Nike chooses to spotlight that tiny minority of the disabled population. But considering the nature of their "made for athletes" product, their market, and their image----who can blame them?

On the other hand, one highly popular double-page Volkswagen ad examined in Hardin's study contained a large wheelchair-user symbol, reconfigured for a more athletic look. As a result, one gratified wheelchair athlete who saw the ad began collecting Volkswagen memorabilia. Likewise, another disabled consumer "goes out of his way to eat at Burger King instead of McDonald's, because he believes Burger King has been more supportive of disabled athletes," Hardin noted.

"Portraying disabled consumers in ads is just good business," disability activist Cyndi Jones said, noting that most places people go to work or play have at least one disabled person, and perhaps more.

Haller pointed out that a 1996 study found that "households with (49 percent) and without (35 percent) a disabled person valued accurate advertising images of disabled people and were likely to buy products and services that showed sensitivity to disabled people's needs." 

Thus, as attitudes are changing, so is the way in which advertising portrays amputees and others with disabilities: A 2000 Nuveen ad featuring Christopher Reeve focused on the predominant hope that the future will bring cures for disabilities, implying, said Haller, "that disabled people are broken and should be fixed."

Today's attitudes, as expressed in Keplinger's statement, "I am unbelievably lucky," reveal that disabled persons are comfortable and happy being who they are--simply another diverse part of the population--and prefer to be viewed that way.

Typically, advertising led the way in sharing that perception with all of America on Super Bowl Sunday. And that can only be a good thing for all concerned.

*Spring 2001 Disability Studies Quarterly