How amputees became the disabled darlings of Madison Avenue

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After more than a decade of war, veterans with severed limbs are making their presence known in advertising

Viewers who watched the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games yesterday may have recognized the bladed legs of snowboarder Amy Purdy – not from her time on the track, but from her 2015 Super Bowl ad for Toyota.

That same year, double amputee Noah Galloway became the face of Kenneth Cole’s men’s fragrance Mankind Ultimate. This year, Nike released ads featuring Paralympian amputee sprinter Scout Bassett, as well as quadruple amputee and mountain climber Kyle Maynard.

What gives?

People with disabilities have always been underrepresented in advertising. Though numbers are hard to come by, it appears that one particular type of disability is becoming the go-to for advertisers. Amputees are increasingly headlining campaigns and showing off their technologically advanced prostheses or ripped abs.

It’s easy to see why. After 15 long years of overseas wars in which IEDs and landmines have caused thousands of injuries, stories of soldiers coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan with lost limbs are all but inescapable. Between 2001 and 2015, more than 1,600 U.S. soldiers had one or more limbs amputated, and several of them have been tapped for campaigns. In May, the underwear brand Jockey featured Chris Van Etten, a former Marine who lost both legs to an IED, in its "Show Em" campaign, which featured "everyday heroes."

"Our goal was less about highlighting Chris’s disability and more about shining a light on a true story of perseverance and endurance," said Dani Simpson, President of PureGrowth, the consulting form that created the Jockey campaign. "It’s never been a story about coping with a disability. It’s always been a story about empowerment despite the loss of a leg."

Van Etten’s experiences made him the ideal subject. The series also included a female firefighter and an adoptive father, all of whom told their personal stories wearing nothing but Jockey, a challenge Simpson said Van Etten handled best. "Compared to what he’s overcome, acting in front of a camera in underwear is nothing. I think when you have faced so many challenges in life you just learn to adjust quickly."

In talks with brands and agency creatives, it becomes clear that these teams aren’t necessarily seeking out amputees to appear in their ads. But veterans with such injuries are common, and the medium lends itself to that particular injury. The loss of a limb doesn’t mar the face. It also doesn’t require any lengthy explanation – it’s obvious and recognizable. "If somebody has a physical disability, like an amputee, that’s definitely something that can reach out and say ‘yes, that person is disabled,’" said Josh Loebner, director of strategy at Knoxville agency DesignSensory and founder of the site Advertising and Disability. He contrasts that to other disabilities that may be less apparent, like some mental disabilities. Indeed, 200 times as many U.S. soldiers suffer from traumatic brain injuries sustained in combat than have lost limbs, yet how many ads feature a TBI?

When Droga5 created the latest spots in Honey Maid’s "Wholesome" campaign, they didn’t initially plan to feature an amputee. "We were definitely open to all kinds of disability," said Creative Director Devon Hong. "What was important to us was that there was a change in the family, where a situation needed to be accepted. It was a natural fit to go down the road of looking for an injured veteran."

The spot, "Husband," actually focuses more on the wife, reflecting on how good it was to have her husband back with their family, despite his injuries.

It also presented some production challenges for the Droga5 team. Unlike a sleek, fit Paralympian, a recently-wounded veteran may not exhibit the same physical grace. "We did have at one point a shot of him going downstairs," Hong said. "We had a discussion with a consultant who works closely with the disabled community, and ultimately we decided not to include those shots because it was drawing more attention to the disability. The story we’re trying to tell is not about that."

But even if amputees aren’t representative of most people with disabilities, ads featuring amputees raise the visibility of disabled people. And that’s a positive step, Loebner said, specifically citing the "Wholesome" campaign.

It’s fabulous," he said. "It goes beyond features and benefits of a brand to show how that brand connects into a society and how it can potentially change the minds and the mindset of people about diversity."

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