How Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award is encouraging brands to feature disabilities in ads

Valenstein & Fatt (Grey London) and Volvo are the winners of this year’s Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising Award, and will create a campaign featuring ‘non-visible’ disabilities.

The agency’s campaign idea was announced as the winner of the award this week, and will receive £1 million of the broadcaster’s airtime for an advert featuring “disabilities such as depression, Alzheimer’s, autism and deafness”. The finished campaign will air in the autumn.

Channel 4’s sales director Jonathan Allan was among those on the judging panel for this year’s awards, and says that the prize aims to “lead to a genuine step change in the advertising industry”. He continues: “We set a really tough brief this year – putting non-visible disabilities at the heart of a campaign – and judging from the range, creativity and sheer quality of the finalists’ ideas, there’s a wealth of opportunity for advertisers and their creative teams to explore in this area…. We hope that everyone will think a little harder about all aspects of diversity when creating their advertising as a result of this competition.”

Channel 4 Meet the Superhumans still

Valenstein & Fatt joint chief creative officer Caroline Pay adds: “Proud does not even begin to describe how we feel about winning this prize. It’s a big deal for V+F, a big deal for Volvo, but above all else a chance to change the way people with non-visible disabilities are represented in the media.”

It will be intriguing to see how the campaign will address the challenge of portraying ‘non-visible’ disabilities. The brief also raises questions around what we class as ‘disabilities’ at all, with Channel 4 including depression in its list of examples.

The brief also raises questions around what we class as ‘disabilities’ at all, with Channel 4 including depression in its list of examples.

This comes at a time when the media and brands seem to be increasingly keen to discuss mental health, to the point of veering into ‘buzzword’ territory. Vice recently proposed mental health as the “new feminism”, underscoring the ubiquity of brands and agencies engaging with anxiety and depression in recent years, which include marketing agency Amplify’s Young Blood video series. Of course, these sorts of discussions are rarely a bad thing, but it’s rare for mental health conditions like borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia to get a look-in. Perhaps they’re still that little bit too misunderstood, and therefore “scary”.

The announcement of this year’s award winner comes just a few months after 4Creative’s John Allison spoke out about his mental health diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and in an interview with CR he expresses some of the reasons it’s culturally important that we address ‘hidden’ disabilities too. “I think there is a culture of enabling in the creative industries in regards to mental health,” he told CR in an interview. “The thing about disability and mental health issues is we can all experience that, there’s a possibility and a chance of that and yet we’re not very tolerant or sympathetic of it.”

Whether it’s physical, hidden, or visible conditions being discussed, it’s not news that most ads depict a startlingly narrow range of characters.

Whether it’s physical, hidden, or visible conditions being discussed, it’s not news that most ads depict a startlingly narrow range of characters. In a piece on Campaign last year, Kate Magee pointed out that “most of the time, disability is absent from advertising, invisible except for when it speaks specifically about disability,” such as in Channel 4’s Paralympics trailer or Grey London’s End the Awkwardness campaign for Scope. The charity says that there are about 13 million disabled people in the UK, so the lack of disability references in advertising is hugely out of proportion to the realities of the population.

Last year Channel 4 held the Superhumans Wanted competition, inviting advertising ideas that put disability “at the heart of a campaign”. The winner was AMV BBDO’s Maltesers spots, which showed disabled actors discussing awkward but potentially universal scenarios in which their disability had led to some sort of comical mishap. One wheelchair-user tramples over a bride’s foot; a deaf woman sees her hearing aid swallowed by her partner’s dog before being comforted by his assurance that she’d have it back tomorrow.

The ads were comically risqué, and as a result, the Maltesers campaign was a huge hit: the Mars-owned brand claimed the ads to be their most successful in a decade, reporting a growth in sales of more than 8%.

According to Channel 4, its Diversity in Advertising Award is an annual commitment to improve diversity in advertising every year until “at least” 2020. The brief for the prize will focus on a different area of diversity each year, aiming to encourage the advertising industry to “embrace inclusive campaigns”.

Here’s hoping it begins a trend for brands to feature diversity in their wider ad campaigns too.

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