Nielsen study: People with disabilities are largely absent from TV advertising

Only 1% of primetime ads feature people with disabilities, the report found. And existing attempts at representation often miss the mark.
article cover

Paralympic Games

5 min read

There are plenty of examples out there of brands making progress on disability inclusion in their products and marketing. Degree recently created a deodorant stick for the visually impaired and people with upper limb disabilities, and Microsoft wowed Super Bowl audiences in 2019 with its Xbox Adaptive Controller. Many other brands will be eager to tell you about what they've done, too. But a Nielsen study released last week suggests there’s a lot of room for improvement.

The report examined the level of representation of people with disabilities in TV ads, finding that only a tiny fraction of primetime ads represent the disability experience in some way, whether through talent, visuals, or themes.

The findings

The study looked at 450,000 primetime ads on broadcast and cable TV during February of this year, each reviewed by human analysts. They found that just 1% of those ads showed someone with a disability, despite the fact that 26% of the US population lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On top of the stark disparity in representation, Nielsen found that, of the small fraction of commercials considered “disability-inclusive,” nearly half of ad spend came from pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.

The lack of representation across other categories perpetuates stereotypes about people with disabilities, the report argues. Namely, if they’re primarily seen in commercials about drugs and healthcare, viewers will have trouble seeing them in other everyday contexts, like vacationing or parenting.

“How do we present people with disabilities in advertising content in such a way that is inclusive and that really represents the lived experience of people with disabilities, which is a lot more than just managing care?” Stacie de Armas, Nielsen’s SVP of diverse consumer insights and initiatives, said to Marketing Brew.

A common trap brands often fall into is “inspiration porn,” the report explained. De Armas described it as “using disabled people in an attempt to motivate non-disabled people, which is really an unfortunate use and representation of people with disabilities.”

Some campaigns are looking to combat this trope. For example, a coalition of brands are backing a campaign around the Paralympics next month that looks to normalize disability by showing people dealing with mundane tasks, like pushing baby strollers and paying mortgages—and emphasizing that they don’t necessarily want to be called “inspirational” or “superheroes.”

Oh, look. Money.

Nielsen lays out another reason advertisers should take note: market potential. The report says discretionary spending for people with disabilities of working age is about $21 billion, citing the American Institutes for Research.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

“There is a lot of money being left on the table when brands aren't being inclusive of this community,” de Armas told us. But it goes beyond that: “Remember, this community has family. And there are a lot of allies who, when they’re watching, also recognize that it's not reflective of their own lived experience of having disability within their homes and their lives.”

Total ad spend on the disability-inclusive ads Nielsen looked at was $57 million, according to the firm’s own analytics. De Armas said that's less than 4% of the $1.6 billion spent during the timeframe studied in the report.

Apart from pharmaceuticals and healthcare, automotive and mortgage brands spent the most on disability-inclusive ads, compared with other categories.

“When brands from a broader range of industries are more inclusive of disabilities in their creative, they help balance the narrative and normalize living with a disability,” the report says.

Doing the work

So there’s an absence of representation, and when it is there, there are missteps. De Armas suggests these shortcomings likely stem from a lack of understanding about how to market to and represent people with disabilities.

“I do believe brands want to do this. I just think they’re not quite sure how and how to do it in a way that's meaningful,” she said.

The report presents a few ways marketers can step up their efforts to equitably and properly represent people with disabilities. One is for agencies and brands to hire them.

“​​People with disabilities can offer incredible contributions to their employers beyond just their ability to complete their jobs and tasks,” de Armas said. “They also have this incredible experience and perspective that advertisers, brands, and all companies can learn from, whether it has to do with talent acquisition, culture building within the organization, or specifically about representation in advertising.”

Another way? Partnering with influencers who’ve already established authoritative voices on disability representation.

“Because there’s such a lack of visibility, social media influencers who are disabled have had to carry the weight of bringing forward the inclusive story,” de Armas said. “Brands can work with social media influencers in this space who have already developed a following and a narrative around their personal experience.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.