Mumbai: A stand-up comedian who stammers, an autistic boy, a girl with a prosthetic limb, and a woman who has lost her hair from chemo—these are some of the protagonists of recent ads for Nestle India, HDFC Standard Life Insurance Co. Ltd, Birla Sun Life Insurance Co. Ltd and Dabur India Ltd, and the unlikely campaigns appear to be working.

Probably in a first, brands are using differently-abled people in their mainstream television campaigns and are not fighting shy of showing the rough side of life. Commercials from brands such as Dabur Vatika, HDFC Life and Birla Sun Life have woven their stories around autism, prosthetic limbs and cancer to communicate with their consumers.

The latest such ad, released last fortnight, shows a little girl with a prosthetic leg taking baby steps towards learning classical dance and finally performing on the stage before a full house and a cheering audience.

The almost three-minute-long commercial from life insurance solutions provider HDFC Life strikes a chord with its subtle message on overcoming odds with dignity.

For HDFC Life, the campaign comes after a period of almost five years, and builds on the premise of HDFC Life’s earlier popular “Sar Utha Ke Jiyo" (live with dignity) campaign. The father in the ad film, played by Pradhuman Singh of the Hindi film Tere Bin Laden fame, is the financial provider who ensures that his family leads a life of independence and dignity.

The ad has got over 161,000 hits on YouTube since 30 January 2015.

Raj Deepak Das, chief creative officer, Leo Burnett India, who conceptualized and worked on the campaign, said that the message—Sar Utha Ke Jiyo—is a true-to-life lesson every parent teaches their child. “That’s what we incorporated in our story as well," said Das.

Released last month, another commercial weaves a story around a father and his autistic son. The ad for Birla Sun Life, created by Taproot India with the tag line Khud Ko Kar Buland, (make your will stronger) has been viewed about 3.4 million times on YouTube since 12 January 2015.

It highlights the struggles of a father helping his young autistic son through his early years. On losing his job at the factory that shuts down, he goes on to set up his own business and enrols his now grown-up son in a new school.

Pallavi Chakravarti, senior creative director, Taproot India, the agency that created the campaign, said in the insurance category there has been a conscious effort by companies to put decisions back in the hands of consumers, encouraging them to take control of their lives.

“Uncertainty…is a given. We don’t know what form it will take; but if one believes that tomorrow will be better and acts on that belief, then there is little destiny can do. That’s the stand Birla Sun Life Insurance has taken," Chakravarti said.

Four months ago, packaged consumer goods firm Nestle also came up with a heartwarming ad for Nescafe featuring a stand-up comedian who stammers. The commercial was an instant hit on YouTube, garnering 5.2 million hits since 5 September 2014.

Branding specialist, and managing director and chief executive at Future Brands, Santosh Desai said commercials are increasingly portraying the gritty parts of life. Typically, advertisements focus on the sunnier or happier side. “The HDFC Life ad comes across as effortless and sensitively handled," he said. “In the end, it works well for the brand and the message it wants to put across."

The HDFC Life commercial has been directed by filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane (of feature film Udaan fame), scripted by Leo Burnett’s Das and his team and produced by Red Ice Films. Das said that the campaign with mass reach talks of hope, faith and love—things everyone can relate to.

Hair care brand Dabur Vatika in a recent campaign features a woman who has lost her hair after cancer treatment.

“The Dabur Vatika ad talks about how beauty isn’t just about looks. That may not be something new...but the meaning here is much bigger, taking into account how a cancer survivor can still look beautiful without hair. It’s not just appearances that define beauty," said Jaideep Mahajan, executive creative director, Linen Lintas, the advertising agency that made the ad.

The campaign, with two million views since 31 December 2014, has been well-received on YouTube as well.

Mahajan said advertisers are looking for better content and believability through their campaigns. “Today, brands want to have real conversations with consumers about them, and not just the product. That’s the big shift we’re seeing in advertising that has been translating into these campaigns of late. Social media, to a big extent, has aided this shift," he explained.

Experts claim such advertising is not about showing the sunny or gloomy side of life, but just life. Swapan Seth, founder of advertising agency Equus, said: “Advertising must be a mirror image of the society it operates within. And if society is flawed and fractured, so must advertising. It is its duty."

Referring to differently-abled people in the new ads, he said: “We are all accepting of the challenged. They are very much a part of life. It is only logical that they now must be a part of our advertising."

Sandeep Goyal, vice-chairman of the Mogae Group, agreed: “Inclusiveness has always been core to advertising, otherwise ads wouldn’t succeed. What we’re seeing now are newer and more interesting renditions of this inclusiveness, coupled with the fact that society has become far more accepting than it was some years ago. This is now reflecting in your advertisements, be it Nescafe or any other. While the thought isn’t new, renditions certainly are."

According to Mahajan at Lintas, brand owners are increasingly aligned with agencies on such sensitive campaigns.

“There’s a marked difference – a shift in acceptability on the part of brands. It’s not just about product proposition. Some 10 years ago, we would be restricted to 30-60 second ad formats—the focus being on the product. Fortunately today, that’s not the case. Brands are open to long-format ads as long as real conversations are being created around them," he said.

Seth agreed. “More than the agencies, I would doff my hat to the clients who bought these ads. It takes courage to hitch your wagon to the new and potentially unknown," he said.

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