This summer, ogling incredible athletes' bodies
became something of a national obsession. And, in two weeks' time, the Paralympics means we can indulge all over again. Except these incredible bodies are also disabled bodies, which means we're "marvelling" rather than "perving", right? Because Paralympians are symbols of triumph-over-adversity rather than sex symbols, right? Not that I'm implying missing limbs can't be sexy. Oh, God, this is tricky.
The potential to put your foot in your mouth when talking about disability is one reason why representations of disability are conspicuously absent from advertising billboards. Big brands tend to play it safe with their marketing budgets. And it seems they often find the safest way to deal with disability in their advertising is to ignore it entirely. When you do see disability in an ad, it's often as some sort of cautionary tale. Drive drunk, end up legless: cut to tearful teen in wheelchair.
Approximately 18% of the British population
can be considered disabled, but disabled bodies are largely invisible from mainstream marketing campaigns. Meanwhile, the David Beckham brand is plastered on everything from the White Cliffs of Dover
, to pants
, to the Paralympics. Indeed, the footballer is fronting a major new television campaign, launched last night
, to mark Sainsbury's sponsorship of the Paralympics.
Unless Posh can be considered a disability (Benedict Cumberbatch would say yah
), Beckham isn't disabled. Nevertheless, he states he is honoured to be a Sainsbury's Paralympic brand ambassador, and 'to help tell the stories of the athletes in the advert in preparation of the Games'. Really, it is rather wonderful he's helping the Paralympians out because, you know, a prosthetic leg can really get in the way of speaking for yourself.
While Sainsbury's emphasis on able-bodied Beckham is disappointingly conservative, its sponsorship commitment to the Paralympics is groundbreaking
. Sainsbury's is the first ever Paralympics-only sponsor of the Games and has signed the largest sponsorship deal in Paralympic history
. Indeed, this year's Paralympics is notable for being the most high-profile, and the most branded. Advertising slots around the Paralympic opening ceremony are sold out
and the likes of BP, P&G and BT are all throwing money at the chance to associate their brands with disabled athletes.
Much of the anticipation around this year's Paralympics can be attributed to a mammoth publicity drive by Channel 4
, which is promoting its exclusive coverage of the Games through a marketing campaign that is its biggest ever. This was spearheaded by a 'roadblock' premiere of its Meet the Superhumans
film across 78 television channels. If you haven't seen the 90-second film, watch it. It's gulp and gasp sort of stuff. What's more, it's a long way away from Channel 4's usual approach towards disability and marketing - which is gulp and gasp in complete horror at its crassness sort of stuff. The last time Channel 4 used disabled people in a high-profile marketing push was to promote its show 'The Undateables
Channel 4's shift from positioning disabled people as 'Undateables' to branding them 'Superhumans' can be seen as exemplifying a wider reassessment in the marketing world around how to portray disability. Just look at South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius
, who is a double-amputee, an incredible athlete, and a bit of a hottie. Pistorius has been roundly embraced by brands: he's partnered with Oakely
, sponsored by Nike
, acts as a BT
ambassador, and is the face (and body) of the Thierry Mugler A*Men fragrance
. Pistorius is also the first amputee track athlete to cross the boundary into the able-bodied Olympics; which has caused uproar from certain quarters who feel his disability actually gives him an unfair advantage
. Indeed, Pistorius's body has become something of an uber-branded battleground over what 'disability' actually means. But controversy aside, one thing seems clear: he is good for business. The fact that such a diverse range of brands are confident the 'Blade Runner' has such mainstream appeal is tantamount to a new realisation by marketers that, hey, Paralympians sell.
Disabled athletes don't just have to tug at your heartstrings; they can be heart-throbs and tug at your wallet-strings. For once, a bit of a sexual objectification in advertising may actually be a positive step.This article originally appeared on The Guardian.