Commercial Breaks – Prime Time For People With Disabilities in 2016

By Amy Saffell

There’s no denying that there’s still a long way to go for fair representation of people with disabilities in American media, but the television commercials of the summer of 2016 mark a positive shift in the right direction. There are ample chances to catch people with disabilities on the small screen, as this summer’s ads show people with disabilities who are strong and capable individuals. In many cases, people with disabilities are shown alongside and in the same light as people without disabilities. It’s a far cry from negatively patronizing or sensationalizing people with disabilities as the media often portrays. Clearly, the Rio Paralympics have played a big part in people with disabilities getting more air time in commercials, but it wasn’t long ago that there wasn’t any mention in commercials of even world class Paralympic athletes at all. The Paralympic logo may have been displayed, potentially out of obligation, but there was no representation of who Paralympians truly were. And it’s not just Paralympians appearing in commercials this summer. There are examples of people with disabilities in commercials beyond Paralympic athletes, too. We just might be seeing true progress rather than a fleeting moment in time.

BP has been at the forefront of featuring athletes with disabilities in its ads leading up to the last several Paralympic Games with the creation of its Athlete Ambassador teams, made up of both Olympic and Paralympic athletes. These Athlete Ambassadors are featured in BP television commercials, as well as print and online media campaigns. The Rio Games featured seven Athlete Ambassadors, two Olympic athletes and five Paralympic athletes, in numerous television commercials and an additional online campaign with extensive features on each athlete.
Following suit, BMW has also created a Performance Team of eight athletes, three Olympic and five Paralympic athletes, and has featured Paralympians in almost all of its commercials. BMW developed a racing chair unveiled for the Rio Paralympic track athletes and went a step further in making the chair a focal point of its ads, from an ad titled “The Road ToVictory”, displaying the preparation of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, to this commercial, featuring Paralympian Josh George in BMW’s racing chair and highlighting the capabilities one possesses in the chair, to almost any of their other seemingly non-Paralympic centric commercials, which have featured Tatyana McFadden racing across the screen in the "Ultimate Driving Machine".
Other companies to include Paralympic athletes in their commercials have been Visa, with this commercial featuring Paralympic quad rugby athletes and Coca Cola, with Tatyana McFadden appearing alongside Olympic champions in this commercial on Instagram. Chobani created a series of commercials featuring a different Olympic or Paralympic athlete in each one, highlighting the training that goes into peak performances, and additional online content on each athlete.


Army Veteran and Paratriathlete, Melissa Stockwell was included in the campaign with this commercial  and this commercial, "Love of Life". Like Chobani, Citi highlights the training and background stories of two Paralympic athletes, Scout Bassett and US Navy Veteran Brad Snyder  Citi also features Olympians and Paralympians together in one commercial. Each of their commercials contains the tagline, “proud sponsors of progress,” a poignant statement. While they most likely mean progress in each athlete’s abilities, these commercials are progress themselves in the positive portrayal of people with disabilities in media.

While it may be easy to chalk the attention up to only to Rio Paralympians, take the Frosted Flakes commercialfeaturing a young girl in a chair who joins her friends at a skate park. Young people in chairs see someone just like them in the media, maybe for the first time, doing a regular activity with friends. Subway features an amputee liftingweights in one of their latest commercials centered around self-improvement. Again, the amputee is portrayed, yes, as working hard for achievement, but just as people without disabilities do. Nike also launched a commercial featuring quadruple amputee, Kyle Maynard, mountain climbing. The camera doesn’t show Maynard as having a disability at first, but when the camera pans out and his disability is revealed, the narrator is surprised to learn that he doesn’t have arms or legs. Maynard has a witty comeback that catches skeptics, both the narrator and the audience who may never have seen someone with a disability climbing a mountain, off guard and makes them realize that living life to the fullest is normal to him, just as it is to most people with disabilities.

While it’s too early to tell if the trend of people with disabilities in media is truly moving in the right direction at the rate that these ads suggest, any opportunity for the public to see people with disabilities as capable members of society can only help perceptions to change. While it may not be perfect or completely permanent, seeing people with disabilities on television portrayed positively is a hopeful sign of more progress to come.

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