Ads and Disability – Kleenex pairs Disabled People with Cute Dogs

Here’s a long analysis of disability in “ad-land,” from New Mobility, focusing heavily on visible disabilities (and especially people in wheelchairs). The author is more optimistic than I am and more dismissive of inspiration porn as a problem (there’s a lot of – sure, sentimental, but it’s great – analysis), but has both some good points and useful numbers. Some excerpts:

Perhaps the country’s leading authority on this matter, at least in terms of quantitative analysis, is Olan Farnall, Ph.D., a communication and media scholar at Texas Tech University. In 2012, Farnall conducted an exhaustive survey of what he called “ability-integrated” TV advertising (AIA) and compared it to a similar study done in 2001. In a sampling of over 1,600 commercials, Farnall found that 29 made the grade. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? In 2001, the number was 15, i.e., half as many. Extrapolated from his sampling, there are far more ads out there than 1,600 and far more AIA ads than 29. Today is a huge ad universe. Counting in multiple repeats, there may be as many as 1,500 30-second spots airing a day!

Farnall estimates that the frequency of ability-integrated ads is about 1.7 percent. By comparison, in the last study published, the frequency of actors with disabilities in speaking parts in a given television programming season was .5 percent. Get out your calculator — that’s more than three times greater.

It has been four years since Farnall canvassed the TV commercial landscape, so the uptick from then to now is largely anecdotal. 

Here’s a point I like:

Cool people in wheelchairs are decidedly new content, right along with heavily tattooed dads and mixed race couples. Seeing a wheelchair user dancing is something Millennials have seen over and over again at Coachella or Bonnaroo. In their minds, ads like this are simply catching up with their everyday reality.

 Ads, like other media, could use much more sophisticated analysis when it comes to disability and representation. I have good news on that front coming soon in regards to Hollywood and TV, but there’s lots of work to do here.

And then we come to Kleenex. From New Mobility again:

Adman Loebner points to another spot that might draw the same reaction. Made for Kimberly-Clark, aka, Kleenex, it is called “Unlikely Best Friends” and features a paralyzed dog and a paralyzed man and their man-dog camaraderie. “Chance,” the dog, hit by a car and close to euthanasia, is an ever-present reminder that, back legs or no back legs, life is good. Kleenex is never mentioned until the final graphic.

Watch the ad here (it is captioned):

The author likes it, saying maybe it’s good inspiration porn, but I wonder – what is the function of this ad? Is it to say – all lives, even disabled lives, have value? It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with selling Kleenex, unless such narratives make you cry.

Here’s another one from Kleenex, this one involving a dog and a girl with Down syndrome (and her mother).

Barney, the companion dog, “doesn’t see disability. He just sees her.”

Again – this is basic feel-good cute animal plus disabled person storytelling. It doesn’t sell Kleenex. It’s about the feels.

It’s not terrible, as these things go. At least it is centering the disabled person more or less, and it’s totally cute. And yet, the message I come away with from both of these Kleenex spots is – awwww, doggie.

As always, when thinking about disability and ads, I return to the gold standard: Swiffer and the Rukavinas.

Interracial, inter-abled, actually on the product, makes you feel good, doesn’t inspire pity or sympathy or othering.

Leave a Reply