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Selling with senses and sensibilities

Tue, 07/31/2012 - 10:52 -- admin

n a welcome move towards inclusion, more and more advertising is now using blind characters as their central figures

Young man showing his new motorbike to his father. The latter knows this is not the bike that he knows and trusts – the Hero Honda Splendor. We know he is blind; he is wearing dark glasses and has a cane. The bike, however, is so individual that he can figure everything out by touching it. He castigates his son for his folly, for not buying a trusted product. The son reveals that the bike is an updated version – the Super Splendor. Incidentally, Hero Honda holds the record for the most popular bike in the world by sales for the Splendor model (source:

Guy and girl enjoying themselves at a party. They're good looking, hot, in their 20s. Guy excuses himself and makes his way through the crowd. Oh, but wait. He's got a white cane; he must be blind. As he begins to wash his hands in the bathroom, he gently feels around the sink and faucet. Back with his date, he tells her, "You should see the bathroom."

That's a 30-second television commercial for Kohler, which, it would seem, makes bathroom fixtures so unusual you don't need to see them to appreciate them.

These two companies are not alone. With little precedent, TV seems suddenly populated with blind people. And not in regular programming. Two more commercials for major corporations feature visually impaired characters as central figures. What's more, the ads show these people in the social swim – looking good, in control, even exceedingly hip. It's what spokespersons for visually impaired people have been seeking from the media for years: inclusion. Yet it's difficult to imagine the ads were created solely as a bow to social consciousness. Advertising is, above all else, about selling products and making money.
So why would a bike company, a faucet company, a car maker (Pontiac) and a liquor brand (Crown Royal) all suddenly decide that blind people are the way to capture viewers' attention?

The answer, in part, is that the first order of every day at an ad agency is to find unique ways to purvey its clients' wares. By using a blind person -- someone not commonly seen on TV -- the agency would be pushing the boundaries of conventional advertising, making the product stand out from all others. (Little did each realise that other agencies were tapping the same premise.) As it turns out, in each of these cases creative minds were also trying to illustrate the exquisite sensory pleasures provided by the product - pleasures that go beyond the visual.

Jonah Bloom, executive editor of the industry magazine Advertising Age, thinks the ads are right on target. "A blind person in an ad is a useful vehicle for getting a message across. You are immediately telling the viewer that there are other senses involved, other pleasures to be derived that aren't visual. How else can you so easily convey that message?"
Sanjay Sood, assistant professor of marketing at the Anderson School of U.C.L.A., says he can't remember another time when blind people have been featured so prominently. And even if it's not a conscious attempt to break down barriers, he says, the results are just as beneficial. The barriers fall, to some degree, just by showing blind people in the mainstream of life, instead of showing them as stereotypes. "Maybe it even adds to the credibility of the product," says Mr. Sood.

“We wanted to drive home the fact that customers have blind faith in Hero Honda bikes, that they trust the brand implicitly,” says P.S. Sunder, Head, Marketing, Hero Honda. The present ad is, in fact, part of a series. In the earlier ad in 2003, Indian actor Pankaj Kapoor essayed the role of a blind Hero Honda Splendor admirer who, along with his brother, goes to buy a bike for his son. The recent ad shows him examining the new bike that his son has bought, the Super Splendor, from the Hero Honda stable. Customer confidence transcends the generation gap.

"It used to be an unwritten rule to only show the exact types of people you're targeting, and to idealize them -- so that viewers never saw anything that wasn't ideally happy, ideally beautiful, ideally perfect. But in the quest for attention, advertisers are willing to push the envelope much more than they used to."

That said, the result of these ads has been exhilarating to some who are sight-impaired. Their representation in the media has been so dismal and unrealistic for so long, they say, that many are thankful to finally be portrayed more accurately, even if only to sell a product.

In fact, the American Federation for the Blind presented its 2003 Access Award to the Kohler company "for cleverly offering a realistic and positive portrayal of a blind person in its television commercial", even though the winning ad did not use an actual blind actor. Kohler did, however, appear to have its finger on the pulse of today's young generation of blind people.
The ad shows blind people as folks who can party, dance the night away, even look ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ if they choose to. Blindness precludes none of that, of course -- although the media still tends to portray blind people as isolated, fearful, helpless, imprisoned in an endless night. Think Al Pacino in ‘Scent of a Woman’: an older guy who sits alone in his room, mad about being blind.

The ads are a step forward, but far from enough, says Tom Sullivan, a blind actor, author and musician who is also an avid skier and golfer. People with visual disabilities, he says, have been almost totally excluded from film and TV. When they are hired, he says, it is to play roles in which their blindness is the focus of the plot. "The real breakthrough will come when a show like 'The Practice' [which is a series on television about a company of lawyers] hires me to play an attorney and my blindness is never mentioned," he says.

"It's all so ridiculous and antiquated," agrees blind actor Rick Boggs, who was a television spokesman for Airtouch Cellular for two years. Among his gripes are that blind men are usually presented as bland, strait-laced, naive and not very masculine. Mr. Boggs says he isn't wildly enthusiastic about the new commercials, especially the two that didn't use blind actors. At the Airtouch auditions, he says, "they interviewed about 150 blind actors before choosing me. So don't tell me there's no pool of talent."

David Crawford, senior vice president of G.S.D.&M., in Austin, Texas, which created the Kohler ad, says he would have used a blind actor, but the spot was done in a whirlwind during the last commercial actors strike. "We had to film in Canada, we had a lot of last-minute logistics to take care of. Casting a blind actor was seriously discussed" but not implemented.
How did they come up with the idea? "We dreamed up dozens of ideas to pitch to them, each one playing off the company's motto: 'The bold look of Kohler.' "One of the team members thought it would be ‘neat’ to show that the design is so individual, you can tell it's a Kohler just by touching it,” he says.

Graham Button, creative director at Grey Global advertising in New York, says that when blind actor Peter Seymour auditioned for the Crown Royal commercial, "he was so obviously right, so handsome, debonair, self-assured, and such a great actor, we would have given him the job whether he was sighted or not."

The ad, which takes place in a bar, features Mr. Seymour -- a blind guy so cool, so perceptive and so hip that he's an object of envy as other guys watch him order and sip Crown Royal while he ‘observes’ the action. Somehow, he knows that two great-looking women are admiring him and he says, "I think the one on the left likes me."
Mr. Button says the ad is successful because it uses a person with heightened sensory awareness to convey the exquisite pleasures offered by the product: the taste, the smell, the tingle as it's swallowed. And in somewhat the same vein, Chemistri, the marketing firm that does Pontiac car ads, used an actor playing a blind person to illustrate the particular joys of driving a Grand Prix.

Brian Durocher, senior vice president at Chemistri, explains: "We asked ourselves: how do we illustrate the sheer pleasureful impact of driving this car? How do we illustrate the Pontiac tag line: 'Fuel for the Soul?' " Their solution: A commercial filmed in the desert, with a man and woman in dark sunglasses, driving full throttle through the sand. The woman's at the wheel, obviously enjoying the sensation. She stops the car, opens the door and extends her cane. That's when you realise the driver is blind.

Mr. Durocher says the commercial is successful, he believes, because it initially expresses the joy of driving that car, then it stops you short when you realize the driver is blind. And then it hits you again, when you imagine the sensations the driver experienced that have nothing to do with eyesight: the car's power, its sensitivity, its strength.

Mr. Durocher says he, too, would have used a blind actor -- but the driver had to be able to "make her mark" during the filming, so the car wouldn't stray off camera. He says he consulted with the Michigan Association for the Blind on every aspect of the commercial.

"One of the first things they told us is that driving was a common fantasy for visually impaired and blind people. And most of them have tried it -- in safe areas, of course." The Association approved the ad, said it helped shatter stereotypes of visually impaired people, and public feedback has been positive, Mr. Durocher says.

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