Advocacy Group: Ad Research Overlooks Disabled

Surveys, Panels Aren't Designed to Include Those With Disabilities, Says Nonprofit

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Why aren't people with disabilities accurately represented in marketing? An ad-industry group says it's because they are underrepresented in research studies -- a phenomenon it's hoping to correct.

According to DisABILITYincites, the 54 million U.S. adults with disabilities and 23 million parents of children with disabilities are often overlooked in research because surveys, panels and other research tools aren't expressly designed to include them in samples.

The nonprofit was founded in 2011 by Tonya Deniz, a former researcher with Leo Burnett and MediaCom to shine light on how the group is ignored by marketers. Ms. Deniz, who is legally blind, says including the disabled in studies and tracking will give them a greater voice, more products aimed at their needs and, ultimately, more jobs. To further the cause, she recently enlisted as board president Don Gloeckler, a 33-year veteran of market research at P&G and currently exec VP-research and innovation of the Advertising Research Foundation.

Ms. Deniz sees people with disabilities today in a position as similar to that of Hispanics in the 1990s -- a huge and growing group that was largely passed over by marketers because they weren't being expressly included in market research.

That changed, she said, when Telemundo and Univision approached Nielsen with "a couple million dollars" and a request to replicate for the Hispanic population what it already did for the general population in tracking TV viewership. Nielsen added money of its own to create the National Hispanic Television Index, which helped measure the size and influence of Hispanics in the media market.

While people with disabilities may be randomly included in studies, she said research design doesn't expressly represent them. "They are consumers equal to non-disabled counterparts and should be included in co-creation" of products and marketing, she said. "You can't do that unless you measure the population."

Mr. Gloeckler said he hadn't considered the implications until Ms. Deniz approached him about joining. "It was one of those 'aha' moments," he said. "It's not a purposeful exclusion," he said. "I believe it's one of lack of understanding, lack of realization of the size and importance of this segment of the population."

While DisABILITYincites hopes to do its own research, and will do studies sponsored by marketers, any results would be available to the general public, because it's a 501(c)(3) organization. A bigger sign of success, Mr. Gloeckler said, will be when marketers and research firms expressly design studies that sample and analyze people with disabilities.

Some marketers now show people with disabilities in advertising -- such as a recent Swiffer ad showing Zack Rukavina, an amputee who's been featured in the Yahoo web series "Ultimate Surprises" and the TV show "Switched at Birth."

But many ads showing people with disabilities historically have shown signs of lacking input from people with disabilities, Ms. Deniz said. "They've gotten better," she said. "But a lot of the ads showed people with disabilities as what you call 'super crips.' You might as well slap a cape on them while they're in their wheelchairs. People with disabilities hate those ads. They don't want to be someone else's inspiration."

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