Advertising's vision problem: ignoring the sight impaired

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If we are headed into a recession (or we're already in one), you would think advertisers wouldn't want to overlook any eyeballs in their search for customers. But according to my old boss, Stan Cohen, who retired 13 years ago after 44 years as an editor with Advertising Age, they are often missing his and those of 14 million other visually handicapped American consumers.

As Stan told me: "Even at my moderately handicapped level, I cannot read theater programs, labels on exhibits in museums and much of the most innovative advertising produced by creative people who strive to identify themselves as ahead of the curve in using the newest graphic arts techniques."

Stan is as energetic and indefatigable as ever. He and his wife, Esther, just got back from a trip to Central America, where they were first-hand witnesses to a "world-class" earthquake in El Salvador. Stan e-mailed a host of friends that they "found themselves in the midst of a loud and rising rumble, and a violent and intensifying shaking of the whole structure, comparable only to the roar of an express train and the rocking of a small craft on a choppy sea." It was, he added dryly, "a profound learning experience I do not recommend." Luckily, their sole loss was a bottle of olive oil, which fell off a shelf and broke.

Here at home, Stan is enlisting the advertising associations to take up the cause. He'd like the groups to talk to their members about making ads more easily readable by using such devices as maximum contrast between colored paper and inks and readable type faces as well as larger type "to the extent it's possible without imposing on fully-sighted people." Stan suggested that a good first step would be to produce a brochure describing the problem and showing ways to deal with it.

Beyond raising awareness, "the idea is to disabuse graphic specialists, who are often young kids, from assuming that award-winning art is what the game is all about when, in fact, the game is about producing attractive ads which serve as many customers as possible, which means serving people who simply cannot see the masterpieces they have created," Stan says.

One of the groups Stan has contacted, the Association of National Advertisers, is already aware of the problem through the good offices of Lighthouse International, a nonprofit organization specializing in vision impairment. The ANA's Bill Duggan read the ad column in The New York Times about Lighthouse's work to promote advertising readability and asked that it make a presentation to the ANA graphics committee.

Mary Stine, VP-communications and marketing for Lighthouse, told me the ANA committee members seemed interested, but "there really wasn't much follow-through." Nobody knew what to do next.

One thing Lighthouse is doing next to galvanize attention is to stage a "best and worst" competition along the lines of Mr. Blackwell's highly publicized fashion critique. Mary says she and the organization's advisory committee (Jerry Della Femina is a member) will select 100 or so nominees representing the good, the bad and the ugly of ad legibility, and will winnow it down to 30 to 50 ads that will go on display at Lighthouse's headquarters in New York this spring.

One factor that could make the judging interesting is that Lighthouse research indicates reverse type, the bane of David Ogilvy, is actually easier for visually impaired people to read. But Stan told me it isn't easier for him.

So a logical question is how do fully-sighted people know what's readable for the visually impaired? The judges for the ad competition all have good vision, but Mary is remedying the dilemma by naming Stan as a judge. It's a quid pro quo deal, though, he tells me. The quid: He gives his opinion of readable ads from the perspective of a person struggling to read them. The quo: Stan must visit one of Lighthouse's low-vision specialists for help on how he can see better.

One last item: Lighthouse is looking for a few good sponsors for its ad competition. I saw a TV spot the other day for Sprint's "voice command" mobile phone. What a great match, if I do say so myself.

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