‘My legs don’t work but my credit card does’: The huge demo marketers are ignoring

A near-death experience that left ad exec Lisa Cox disabled gave her a startling insight into how marketers totally ignore people with a disability - missing out on a huge demographic with big spending power.

Lisa Cox was a few years into her advertising career when in 2005 she collapsed at Melbourne Airport having suffered a massive brain haemorrhage.

Intensive care doctors told the 24-year-old’s devastated family she wouldn’t make it through the night. She did – but spent several weeks in a coma and on life support.

Her heart stopped beating on two occasions. Virtually all her major organs shut down. Parts of her body, deprived of blood, turned black.

“The way it was explained to me later is they gave me medication to bring the blood back to my vital organs, but it took blood away from my extremities,” Cox explained.

As a result, doctors were forced to amputate her left leg, the toes on her right foot, and nine of her fingertips.

“I was either comatose or so heavily drugged up that I don’t remember much of it,” she said.

What Cox does vividly recall is emerging from her near-death experience feeling utterly terrified about what her life would now be like.

“All I knew at that stage was that I was going to be severely disabled, and what I knew about disability was based on 24 years of stereotypes in my head,” she said.

“On one hand I was grateful to be alive because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be. On the other, I was really upset. To me, life with a disability meant all these terrible things – I’d never get married, I’d never work again, I’d never be happy. That’s all complete bullshit, by the way.

“But that’s all I’d seen and heard in the media. And as someone working in advertising, I had helped shape that perception without meaning to.”

After multiple surgeries, extensive rehabilitation and months in and out of hospital, Cox got back to work – but with a very different focus.

“I knew I couldn’t change my disability, but I could help to change the industry that was such a big part of telling me that my life was now worthless.”

She began working as a consultant to agencies, businesses and brands to begin addressing the lack of representation of people with a disability in advertising.

Despite making up 20 per cent of the population, disabled people rarely see themselves reflected in the marketing materials they encounter throughout everyday life.

“The worth of a consumer with disabilities is seen to be zero – our value is too low to care about,” Cox said.

“I can speak from a before-and-after perspective. Before my disabilities, I’d walk into a store and the salesperson would rush over to help me. These days, I wheel into a store and I’m totally ignored.”

Forget that kind of outlook being unkind – it’s bad for the bottom line, Cox explained.

“My legs don’t work but my credit card does,” she said.

“Twenty per cent of the population has a disability. That’s a 20 per cent market share that isn’t being marketed to.

“There’s the charity approach of encouraging people to support Aussies with a disability because it’s a nice thing to do. And sure, it absolutely is, but I’ve spent enough time in boardrooms to know that a lot of decisionmakers and business leaders, the ones who make a decision about whether a campaign runs, they’re looking at a P&L statement.”

But the global estimated disposable income of people with a disability is US$1.9 trillion (AU$2.91 trillion).

Research released in March by Integral Ad Science shows 81% of Australian consumers consider diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to be important to them.

More than a third of shoppers say they have changed purchasing habits to help support DEI efforts and 67% believe their individual actions have a ‘significant’ impact in supporting diversity causes.

In addition, three quarters of Australians believe brands have a responsibility to reflect modern culture and 69% want brands to actively champion DEI causes.

But as Cox pointed out, what businesses think of when they hear ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ is missing one big population group.

“There was a study published in Harvard Business Review showing 90 per cent of businesses want to be active in the DEI space. They’re really passionate about it. But only four per cent of their initiatives included people with disabilities.

“I see it time and time again. Disability has become forgotten in the DEI focus. It’s disappointing when you realise we’re the world’s largest minority, according to the United Nations.”

Cox said part of the problem is many people feel “uncomfortable” when confronted with disability.

“I get that. I make people uncomfortable sometimes. But business leaders need to get comfortable with their discomfort because they’re losing out from an economic and financial point of view, but also the social responsibility aspect.

“There’s so much research about how much this younger generation values a brand that shows they support authentic action. They want to see the world they live in reflected in the media presented to them.”

A recent powerful example that struck Cox as inclusive marketing done well was an ad for American chocolate brand Hershey’s, featuring a teenage boy learning sign language so he can talk to a deaf schoolmate he has a crush on.

“Not only was it done really, really well, but it aired during the Super Bowl – millions of dollars of airtime. That says a lot when it comes to authenticity.”

For marketers and creatives, it’s not hard. Cox pointed out that it’s often simple and subtle shifts that can make a big difference.

“A script can be worded in a certain way, a camera can be angled or panned in a certain way… that’s the work I do with agencies and brands now.”

Cox provides advice on everything from strategy development to creative execution, for major agencies to CMOs working for individual brands.

As well as being good for the bottom line, there are myriad invisible benefits of including disable people in DEI marketing initiatives, she said.

“I want to feel seen and valued. I want to feel like I’m a valuable member of society. If you’re ignored, it’s hard to feel like you’re worthwhile. I don’t want to be shoved under the rug.”


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