What This Focus Group's Reaction to People With Disabilities Says About Advertising

Wax experiment highlights the lack of representation

Behold, one of the most uncomfortable and flummoxed focus groups ever.

The folks in the clip below initially believe they're watching commercials for laundry detergent and cereal. But that's not what this particular initiative is really all about. 

Visibility for Disability | Focus Group

In fact, the Calgary Society for Persons With Disabilities commissioned and screened a pair of fake ads populated by performers with Down syndrome and other developmental issues. 

Created with marketing shop Wax, the "Visibility for Disability" initiative shines a spotlight on how infrequently disabled people appear on TV or in ads, and challenges content creators to cast members of that community in their projects. The campaign drops today, timed to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. 

"The idea started with a hypothesis that people would be taken aback if they saw people with disabilities in a commercial for fictional products not intended specifically for people with disabilities," Wax creative director Nick Asik tells Muse. "And the focus group really did confirm that. The reactions of unease stem from the lack of representation of people with disabilities on screen—we're simply not used to seeing people with disabilities doing the everyday things that we all do." 

Here are the faux ads created for the focus group. In these versions, the true nature of each film is revealed near the end:

Visibility for Disability | Beam
Visibility for Disability | Crunchy O's

The idea of creating "commercials" instead of faux movie scenes or TV pilot outtakes stemmed from a desire "to show that people with disabilities are just like everyone else, and do purchase products like cereal and laundry detergent," Asik says. 

"All our talent did amazing—no more takes than you would with any other actor," he says. "We hope this initiative inspires others to put more people with disabilities on screen, and on the campaign website, there are resources on how to hire people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera."

The campaign feels somewhat similar to lauded efforts from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society and FCB Canada, which feature members of the disabled community in compelling, highly relatable appeals for greater understanding, inclusion and resources. What the efforts don't share, however, is the "gotcha" edge of the focus-group film. 

"It just rubs me the wrong way," one subject admits after watching the fake commercials. It's an honest reaction, and the approach is designed to prompt viewers to examine their own preconceptions and prejudices. 

The focus group film will be shared on CSPD social feeds and by partner organizations, including Easter Seals, RespectAbility and the Media Access Awards. The first 100 signatories to an open letter pledging support for the project—including actors, show-runners and brand executives—will also share the clip in an effort to reach even more industry decision-makers.

Per CSPD, fewer that 3 percent of characters on North American TV have disabilities, and almost all of them are played by actors who are not, in fact, disabled. 

"We think that if more people with disabilities are represented on-screen, people will indeed be more accepting of seeing them in the media as well as in real life," Asik says. "The best way to relate to a minority group is to find the similarities you share with them." 


Visibility for Disability

Client: Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities
Executive Director: Mickey Greiner
Administrative Assistant: Dallal

Agency: Wax
Creative Director: Nick Asik
Design Director: Monique Gamache
ACD/Copywriter: Chris Lihou
Copywriter: Jordan Findlayson, Monica Sommerville
Art Director: Brad Connell, Sam Benesh
Production Artist: Thomas Turner, Tina Song
Director, Strategy: Greg Damus
Account Executive: Michala Allen

Production Company: 2 Words Productions
Director of Photography: Jay Lawrence, Tom Acton
Editor: Jay Lawrence
Camera Assistant: Mark Riddle
Audio: Dan Gretton

Audio Production: 6 Degrees
Audio Director: Dan McManus
Sound Engineer: Peter Irwin

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