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Selling with senses and sensibilities


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 TV commercial for Kohler, which, it would seem, makes bathroom fixtures so unusual you don't need to see them to appreciate them.

Kohler is not alone. With little precedent, TV seems suddenly populated with blind people. And not in regular programming. Three current 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 the visually impaired 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 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 realize that two 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 UCLA, 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 Sood.

"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' 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. 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 GSD&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, Crawford 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 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."

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 realize the driver is blind.

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 that driver experienced that have nothing to do with eyesight: the car's power, its sensitivity, its strength.

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 Assn. 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 the 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 the visually impaired, and public feedback has been positive, Durocher says.

Posted on aef.com: July 28, 2003

 

Bettijane Levine, LA Times. July 22, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

 

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