The differently abled find their place in Indian advertising

An increasing number of brands are choosing to be more realistic in their representation of society through advertising


A still from the latest advertisement for KFC India. The ad has already been watched over 2.8 million times on social media website Facebook alone, since its launch last week.
A still from the latest advertisement for KFC India. The ad has already been watched over 2.8 million times on social media website Facebook alone, since its launch last week.

Mumbai: The conversation was perfectly natural. Two friends bickering over a bucket of fried chicken. What set it apart, perhaps, was that the advertisement for KFC India, the American fast-food chain, featured a character who was differently abled: he could not hear or speak and communicated with his friend in sign language.

While it’s not the first time that a commercial has included a differently abled person in a creative, an increasing number of brands are choosing to be more realistic in their representation of society through advertising. The latest digital film for Paper Boat, the traditional drinks brand from Hector Beverages, features a visually challenged, old man who lives alone in a quaint hill town. Even the new Google India ad released in May for Google Photos launched with a five-minute film, chronicling the journey of Amit Tiwari, a resident of Jhansi, who suffered from severe corneal dystrophy in both eyes which left him almost completely blind in school. The film covers his journey through a life-changing operation to the recovery of his sight.

Last year, Nestle came up with a heart-warming ad for Nescafe coffee featuring a stand-up comedian who stammers, while an ad for Birla Sun Life wove a story around a father and his autistic son. These are people who had, till almost a few years ago, seen no representation in mainstream advertising.

For KFC India, the new advertisement was a refreshing new take on the bond of friendship—and the celebration of “unlikely friendships”. The ad for its Friendship Bucket, starts with two friends sitting at a KFC restaurant communicating in sign language. The ad ends with a voice-over, saying, “Dost jitney alag hote hain, Friendship utni kamal ki hoti hai!’’

“We believe that the more unlike your friends are from you, the richer the friendship is. That’s why in the new campaign we feature stories about friends that are different, yet together,” said Lluis Ruiz Ribot, chief marketing officer, KFC India. The company is one of the few that actually walks the talk. KFC India has been known to have inclusive policies and employs differently abled people.

“It’s perfectly natural to be differently abled. Whether it’s in our own lives, or those of our relatives and friends… you constantly encounter people who are differently abled. It was only a matter of time that advertising started reflecting that reality. And as long as the representation is natural and not over-dramatized or contrived, it will work well,” said Amit Akali, managing partner and creative head, What’s Your Problem, a Mumbai-based, digital-focussed advertising agency, pointing to the beautifully made ad film , “Meet the Superhumans”, for the Paralympic Games.

Here is some statistics on people with disabilities in India. According to the 2011 census data, 2.21% of the population is disabled, a number that experts claim is under-reported, owing to the stigma attached to the condition, something that brands are attempting to change with their inclusive messaging. But it’s not just about good intent, it also makes good business sense for those who do get it right. “We are all gullible and a little extra sensitive and attentive when it comes to a differently abled person. You automatically, out of empathy, tend to give that person a lot more room and respect. That’s the angle of humanity within us. And both marketers and advertisers know that our defences and shields instantly go down when a differently abled person comes into focus,” said Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer at the agency Bang in the Middle, explaining why this strategy makes sense for brands. The ad for KFC India, for instance, has already been watched over 2.8 million times on social media website Facebook alone, since its launch last week.

“There is nothing wrong in showing differently abled people in advertising. That’s a reality. And that’s the real world. The harsher victims of nature. That comes along with all sorts of expressions. From transgenders, blind, mute, paraplegics, acid attack survivors, accident survivors, to almost anyone who has a human frailty. Using human stories and opening windows into the truth of life is admirable. I also think ads that include them run this risk of being double edged. The good and bad. For me, I am willing to see this as a wonderful embrace of equality and humanity, and ignore the marketing and commercial gain that the brand stands to gain from this which is now a very obvious global and social trend,” said Suthan.

While the strategy has worked for some of these brands, owing to the sensitive treatment, there are enough instances, when it has also created a backlash. “It’s quite fashionable to take a social cause and embed it into the product story. Especially at a time when it’s difficult to tell one advertisement apart from the other. But if you exploit people or issues without context, just to score points it’s going to fail. People don’t appreciate being taken advantage of, and if it reeks of commercialization, it will backfire. While the intent maybe good, no one will applaud you for intent. You have to be careful and sensitive, with a clear assessment of what the message will do. Will it help the cause? Or will it compound the problem?” said K.V. Sridhar, chief creative officer, SapientNitro India, an integrated marketing and technology agency.

Others such as Ambi Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com, believe that while brands are heading in the right direction there was also some need for restraint. “In our effort to correct the wrong, we may be over-correcting. But having said that we should reach the mid-mark soon,” he said.

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