Meet Jack, a dedicated athlete sweating through a strenuous workout with his comely girlfriend providing inspiration. "One more," she urges, spotting him on the free weights. Sex, physical prowess, beer-nothing new in this Budweiser commercial-until the camera pulls back and shows Jack leaving the gym in a wheelchair. Cut to a local bar. Jack and his lady are celebrating his completion of the wheelchair marathon over a beer with friends, when she turns to him and asks, "What's next?" "Tomorrow," Jack says, "we're sleeping in."
Sleeping in? A guy in a wheelchair with a beautiful girl? Most of the time, television commercials barely acknowledge the existence of disabled people, let alone depict them as sexually desirable. But new legislation and a largely untapped market of disabled Americans has advertisers taking a fresh look at a group that lives, loves and shops like everyone else. The Eddie Bauer catalog of outdoor wear includes a skier with an artificial leg. Citibank advertisements show a deaf woman getting her lost Visa card replaced by signing on a telecommunications device for the deaf. Disney depicts a disabled man picking up his college diploma, who, when asked what he's going to do next, says exuberantly, "Go to Disney World."
What's spurring marketers to open their eyes to the disabled? "This is a way that a company or product can demonstrate some humanity," says Howard Liszt, president of Campbell-Mithun-Esty Advertising in Minneapolis. But the motives go far beyond altruism. An estimated 43 million disabled people now live in the United States. The recently implemented Americans with Disabilities Act-which broadens disabled people's access to everything from buses to the top shelves at grocery stores--is expected to provide them entree to places and products never before accessible. Says Sandra Gordon, a spokeswoman for the National Easter Seal Society, "Companies have started seeing that there are disabled people out there who are working and have money ... and squeeze the Charmin [like everyone else]."
Companies have traditionally shied away from the practice of featuring disabled people in their advertising for fear it might alienate consumers. "We were concerned that we might he viewed as exploiting children with disabilities," says George Hite, spokesman for the Target clothing-store chain, a pioneer in using children with disabilities in its ads. In fact, that concern has proved to be unwarranted. Target has received hundreds of letters, many from the parents of disabled children, complimenting the company on its vision. Sales have reflected the public's approval. "Merchandise that these young models are wearing has sold extremely well," says Hite, "certainly as well as, and, in some cases, better than, other advertised merchandise."
Other retailers are clearly hoping for the same kind of success. K mart, whose advertising reflects a diversity of ethnic and demographic groups, now uses people with disabilities in some of its ads. One new ad campaign includes disabled actress Colleen Stewart shopping in a wheelchair. Gordon is heartened by such initiatives. "Those of us in the nonprofit world have tried for years to change the way disabled people are perceived," she says. Now, it seems the for-profit world is finally lending a hand.
Photos: Living, loving and shopping like everyone else: A Nordstrom ad with a disabled model (left), a scene from a recent Budweiser beer commercial