Who’s Using Amputees in Advertising?

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Ideally, we would be able to publish an honor roll of mainstream advertisers who have featured amputee actors or models in their print or broadcast commercials. Such a list would constitute an interesting and useful reference for our readers.

Unfortunately, a resource that tracks this kind of information on any current or comprehensive basis has proven elusive--apparently it's one of those good ideas that no one seems to have yet followed up on. (Anybody listening?)

Even talent agencies that utilize amputee actors and models are understandably reluctant to share information concerning their clients' professional assignments in order to identify employer advertisers. The amputees we spoke with individually were willing and helpful, but their information on specific advertisers they had worked with added yet another thought-provoking aspect to this topic: Reports from several amputees described commercials they had been featured in--but which never aired. Hence, no residuals.


One actor, an upper-limb amputee who was filmed watering plants in a nursery, speculated that although the advertiser (BellSouth) had good intentions, perhaps the final screening raised concerns that members of the viewing audience are not yet as comfortable watching an amputee with an upper-limb prosthesis as they are seeing one with a lower-limb prosthesis, and they might find it a distracting image. Perhaps it's a simple matter of historically limited exposure--and given time, this barrier too will erode.

Another reason why it is difficult to identify and isolate advertisers who feature amputees is that, for better or worse, those sources that focus on improving the visibility of people with disabilities do not keep separate statistics specifically on amputees.

Progress Is Being Made

Our research has shown, however, that impressive work is being done by dedicated groups, task forces, organizations, and committees--and impressive progress has been made. (See Ability Magazine's online story of the "Media Access Office" and their awards at http://abilitymagazine.com/Edwards_media.html). Advertisers like McDonald's, Nissan, Sears, Honda, BellSouth, Eukanuba, and others are indeed stepping forward to include more and more disabled people of all types in their marketing efforts.

Nissan's Landmark Effort

Considerable attention has been focused on Nissan's landmark advertising effort, in particular. Advertising Age's coverage of Nissan's January 2001 plans for the campaign can be accessed at www.adage.com/news.cms?newsId=35799 -- for a price. Another site, www.ovationadvertising.com/Enews/Archives/8.27.2002/1153.htm, also describes the brand campaign: "The new Nissan TV spots use high emotions, focusing on people shifting their lives and activities. In one, a double-amputee female rock climber is shown struggling upward. A text line says Shift Obstacles.' The emotionally charged work introduces "Shift" as the new umbrella tag [for the campaign]."

The campaign, which was introduced in the US in September 2002, uses the "Shift" version of Nissan's global tag, "Shift the Future." (In Japan and Europe, the tag appears variously as "Shift the Future" and "Shift Expectations." Apparently Americans tend to prefer more tangible and physical goal-setting.) In "The Spirit of Branding," an essay contributed by Dr. Seamus Phan to www.allaboutbranding.com, Phan reports that according to The Wall Street Journal, Nissan USA spent $700-$750 million on the new "SHIFT __" campaign, to rejuvenate the brand and mindshare in customers.

"When you look at the US version of "SHIFT__" advertisement," Phan says, "two of the segments stand out: one where a double-amputee lady did mountain or rock climbing, and a group of speech-challenged people communicating effectively with one another through sign language. In the Far East version, one segment stood out: where an amputee lady stood on a surfboard and surfed the waves with a smile that clearly emanated from the inside. Both advertisements are compelling, simple, high-energy, and yet warm and moving. The advertisements ask the everyday person, consumers and shareholders alike, to shift something in their lives, akin to shifting gears or mindsets.

"The key message is really about removing stereotypes of people, and allowing(them)to see beyond their own perceived limitations, clouded judgments, and myopic self-image, among other things."

So, Phan implies, in addition to selling product, Nissan is also teaching a moral lesson. Since power of some of the greatest advertising ever written lies in a surface simplicity that conceals multiple underlying layers of meaning, all of them open to personal interpretation, I certainly won't quibble about Dr. Phan's conjecture. In any case, it's a campaign well-conceived--and a breed we will hopefully see more of.