Diversity in advertising and the high fashion glass ceiling  

Disability advocate Lisa Cox reflects on how advertising is changing the dial on diversity in the fashion industry, and slowly but surely, disability inclusivity is coming to the forefront.

The fantasy found inside fashion magazines has been moving ever closer to realism in the last couple of decades. Aspirational has given way to the more attainable.

As readers we knowingly buy into the fantasy. But fashion has had a gritty glow up in the last twenty years. Editors recognise their readers want to see themselves in their pages, while staying authentic to the tome’s brand.

Skin tones, body sizes, shapes and ages have shifted from homogenised to diversified.

We are now more accepting of a lined face, a body that has given birth, natural hair, and not just on the head. Ages, experiences, races and genders, all embraced far more than they once were.

It’s a more honest and celebrated landscape. Yet still a relatively palatable one.

But one in five people are still not reflected in these high gloss pages at the rate they exist in real life.

For so long, inclusivity has stopped short at embracing people with disabilities.

Despite being the world’s largest minority and making up approximately 20% of our population, people with a disability show up in just 1% of advertising.

For me it’s been almost a two-decade long crusade to shift the dial.

I acquired my disability nearly twenty years ago. At the time it put the handbrake on my media and advertising career.

I was in hospital for over a year, the first time. When I left, imagine my heartbreak to realise not only I couldn’t change my disability, but I couldn’t see me, or others like me, reflected in the world I had come from. Not on screen, not in print. My likeness did not exist in the landscape of media and advertising.

While I knew I couldn’t change my circumstances, I knew I had the industry background to help find solutions and change how some of the world’s most influential industries were representing me and many like me. By not representing, industries like advertising, fashion, media and more were essentially saying that we were worthless to them.

The average disposable income of people with a disability is US$1.9 Trillion. For a business, that is far from worthless.

That figure jumps to a staggering US$13 Trillion when you include family, friends and others who are allies to the disability community and will spend accordingly.

One by one, I began selecting industries in which I could work with other professionals to create change. Fashion and its adjacent advertising hold incredible influence – Not just on social attitudes but to business bottom lines. And big businesses are starting to clue into the fact that they’re ignoring us at their peril.

Last year the Shift20 campaign saw Australian brands like ANZ, Weet Bix and Bonds reshoot part of their ad campaigns, replacing the hero talent with a person with a disability. I look forward to seeing what happens in the future, beyond the one-off reshoots.

The excuse from agency staff and clients that “it’s too hard” or “it’s just not possible” [to seamlessly include disability in advertising] has evidently been blown out of the water.

Of course, there’s more to inclusive advertising than simply whacking a wheelchair in front of the camera or a prosthetic in print but these are the nuances that I love diving into – as both an agency copywriter and a passionate advocate.

As the most recent Cannes Lions showed us, it is possible to create award-winning advertising that’s inclusive of disability. It need not be one or the other – balancing a positive ROI with a strong creative strategy and disability representation is possible.

But more than that – one in five Australians will direct their dollars where they see true diversity happening.

Platforming people living with a disability in advertising should be recognised. But it also highlights that it’s not that hard, so why aren’t more brands and businesses acknowledging this important slice of their audience.

Earlier this year, it was a month worth celebrating for disability inclusion advocates like myself. It saw British Vogue feature change-makers, leaders and legends who all happen to have a disability.

I was cynical at first glance, but soon realised this was not an attempt to cash grab the disability dollar while lacking a full understanding of what it meant to be truly disability inclusive.

No, this issue was a triumph.

Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful even went so far as to actively knock back advertisers who didn’t have a truly diverse culture. A brave and admirable show of solidarity with the disability community.

Enninful is showing genuine leadership, acknowledging the privileges of his position while using that power in a way that is not only good for society but also good for business.

This slow burn in the fashion industry has been heating up since 2021, when visibly disabled models were on the runway in Australia for the first time in history.

I was part of the team that made it happen and consulted with stakeholders over the years to make sure it wasn’t just a ‘moment.’ Now Australia Fashion Week includes designers with disabilities and includes diverse talent on the runway and backstage.

It’s not perfection, but it’s progress. And it’s big business.

Today I work closely with brands and businesses who genuinely want to be inclusive of disability but aren’t quite sure where to start or what steps to take.

Over the years, there were days when I was the only person in the room who would or could identify as disabled. But over the years, be it in a boardroom or at a casting, I’ve been joined by one more, then another, and then another person with disabilities.

We’ve come so far in our inclusivity crusade. It’s been painfully slow but momentum is building. Ask your favourite brands what they’re doing about diversity? Investigate what their values are and importantly, if they walk their own talk. We have to keep this work going.

Furthermore, if you’re in a position to make decisions about who or what gets represented alongside your brand’s logo, consider that there’s 13 trillion reasons to include disability in your content.

Lisa Cox is a disability advocate, speaker and consultant. She is disability affairs officer for Media Diversity Australia and sits on the D&I Taskforce for the Advertising Council Australia (ACA).


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