Disability and Discrimination Compliance in Marketing Campaigns (Case Studies of Best and Worst Practice)

Marketing Theory Article
20 mins

Disability and discrimination compliance is a key subject area for any trainee marketer to learn before they enter the field. It is equally important for established marketers to monitor best practice in this area throughout their careers, as part of their continuing professional development (CPD).

In this article, we summarise several key resources marketers can use to learn regulatory requirements and professional best practices relating to disability and discrimination. We’ll look at some prominent case studies showing how major brands have approached discrimination and disability, and we’ll also discuss why online ad targeting is now a key area for marketers to focus on in their efforts to avoid discriminating against audience groups. 

What are the marketing regulations and best practices that protect people against discrimination?

People in England, Scotland and Wales are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Marketers and advertisers are required to abide by the rules of the Act, which are detailed in full here. To fully understand the Act, read Gov.uk’s explanatory notes.

Principles of good practice for marketers and advertisers are outlined in the Advertisements and Marketing section of the Equality and Human Rights Commission website. The guidance offered here is aimed specifically at marketers in England, Scotland and Wales.

This Civil Service blog, “Top tips on accessible communications” is a great resource for ensuring there are no barriers preventing someone from using your product or service. The blog provides 11 tips as well as information on how to use them effectively.

Another useful resource is Campaign’s article, Disability in marketing: Five things you can do to make a difference. The article outlines five areas marketing teams can look at to improve their provision for disability and discrimination compliance:

  • Staff education;
  • Tools to support inclusivity;
  • Focus on diverse representation when recruiting talent to appear in marketing campaigns;
  • Accessibility of the workplace;
  • Representation of disabled people in creative output.

When it comes to designing and developing websites, the most important resource we can turn to is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Its specifications are intended to help webmasters, developers and content producers make the web more accessible, according to W3C’s accessibility principles

By taking on-board all the above regulations and best practice guidelines, you’ll gain a good grounding for producing marketing campaigns that respect people with disabilities, and also for avoiding discrimination in your work processes.

We are now going to take a look at some prominent marketing campaigns that demonstrate best practice with regards to disability and discrimination compliance, and also some worst practice examples. 

Best practice case studies


Maltesers: inclusivity in advertising

The first thing marketers can do to better serve people with disabilities is to include people with disabilities in their campaigns.

A good example is the series of Maltesers ads featuring disabled people which aired during the 2016 Summer Paralympics. 

As The Drum puts it, the ads “were inspired by real-life stories from disabled people, celebrating universally awkward situations.”

If we are to take online comments as our guide, reaction to the ads was mixed, but predominantly good. While some viewers criticised the edgy humour sometimes used, many were pleased to see disabled people placed front-and-centre in such a prominent campaign.

In terms of marketing performance metrics, the campaign was unequivocally successful. Sales grew by 8.1% from campaign launch, and brand affinity was up 20%. Mars VP of marketing, Michele Oliver, heralded the campaign as Maltesers’ best and most effective in 10 years.

What this teaches us

  • Giving people with disabilities a proper share of the spotlight is key to inclusive marketing;
  • Taking inspiration from real-life stories can help with accurate representation;
  • Inclusive advertising can get excellent results.


Network Rail: making online information accessible

One of Business Disability Forum’s guidelines on accessibility is to use Plain English in your content.

This is sound advice for many businesses – but what about those whose subject matter demands the use of technical language?

Network Rail has a great solution for clarifying the specialist terms used on its safety microsite: a searchable ‘jargon buster’ that defines the terms in (relatively) accessible language.

This feature makes the site’s content more accessible for anyone who doesn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rail industry. This model can be used by all sorts of organisations to unpack complex language and accommodate more visitors.

Another site with a jargon buster is councilfordisabledchildren.co.uk. In this case, the implementation is via PDF, rather than an on-site directory.

What this teaches us

  • When Plain English can’t put across what we’re trying to say, we need to find other ways to communicate accessibly;
  • Searchable ‘jargon busters’/glossaries can clarify complex language used on a website.


Worst practice case studies

Every brand should include and fairly represent people with disabilities in their ads and marketing campaigns.

This seems like a sentence that shouldn’t need to be written – but sadly, it seems that many disabled people in the UK feel inadequately or wrongly represented by marketing.

A 2018 study by the marketing research agency UM found that 63% of those with physical disabilities would like a higher profile in marketing, while 72% of those with mental disabilities wanted to be better reflected in advertising.  

Against this backdrop of discontent, ads from the likes of Maltesers, ASOS and Target have earned praise for giving people with disabilities a share of the spotlight.

Inclusive marketing is usually something to celebrate, so long as it is done with a proper understanding of the people it represents. The tech giant HP arguably failed on this point with its 2016 holiday ad, ‘Brothers’ (above).  

The advert drew criticism for:

  • presenting a character’s disability as pitiable;
  • showing inaccurate sign language; and
  • its failure to include subtitles for deaf viewers.

Commenting on the ad, Tari Hartman Squire, CEO of the disability-inclusive strategic marketing firm EIN SOF Communications, told Campaign US, “It’s this narrative of ‘I feel sorry for myself, I can’t hear,’ which is B.S..

“I believe this ad is out of touch and did not engage the Deaf community in its creation.”

It is worth noting that some people did appreciate HP’s ad – but that only emphasises what a missed opportunity this was. With a more considerate approach to characterisation and greater attention to detail, the advert could have been a hit.

What this teaches us

  • Marketing that presents disability as pitiable is disempowering and unappealing;
  • Depictions of disabilities and associated culture, technologies and experiences must be accurate;
  • Marketing should always be accessible, and the importance of this is emphasised when a marketing campaign depicts people with disabilities.


The Co-operative Travel: poor website accessibility

In a 2016 study by digital transformation expert ClickZ, The Co-operative Travel’s website was found to be the least accessible of ten leading travel booking sites.

The site scored just 1/11 against a list of accessibility criteria. In the opinion of ClickZ’s researchers:

  • Its headings were not logical;
  • There was no support for tabbing around the site;
  • The website did not clearly show the area users should be focusing on when tabbing around the site;
  • Images did not contain descriptive alternative text;
  • Forms were not accessible;
  • Colour contrast was insufficient;
  • Sliders were used (according to ClickZ, sliders should be avoided, as they require users to focus on two areas at once);
  • Text was not large enough;
  • The layout was not clear enough.

The only criterion in the ClickZ study that The Co-operative Travel website met was support for successfully zooming in and out on a tablet or smartphone.

Some of the other travel websites analysed for the study fared far better. Expedia met 10/11 criteria, Virgin Atlantic met 8/11, and four other sites met 7/11.

When we visited The Co-operative Travel website in 2019, we found that some progress has been made since ClickZ’s study. Colour contrast was now good, and the site layout was clear considering the volume and complexity of information inherent to travel booking. However, we could still find images that lacked descriptive alternative text (more commonly known as ‘alt text’).

If you want to assess the accessibility of your own site, you may find it helpful to score it against the criteria from the ClickZ study (listed above).

What this teaches us

  • Accessibility differs greatly between websites, with some major brands performing poorly;
  • Improving accessibility can be as simple as changing the levels of colour contrast in a website theme;
  • We can measure website accessibility by scoring a site against key accessibility criteria.


A key problem area for digital marketing discrimination compliance: ad targeting

Ad targeting is a fundamental part of digital marketing. It’s a way for us to get our messaging out to the highest-converting audiences via paid search, sponsored social media posts and some display ads. Crucially, in pay-per-click (PPC) online advertising, it can secure improvements in conversion rate, leading to lower ad cost, lower ad spend and a higher volume of conversions. Some marketers have developed highly creative, disruptive techniques for ad targeting.

There are also downsides to ad targeting, chiefly that it can cause or facilitate discrimination. As Gillian B. White of The Atlantic puts it:

“By design, many social-media companies and other websites have a ton of data about who users are and what they’re interested in. For advertisers, that makes promoting goods on those sites particularly appealing, since they can aim their ads at the narrow slice of people who might be interested in their products. But targeting, taken too far, can be the same as discrimination. And while it’s perfectly legal to advertise men’s clothing only to men, it’s completely illegal to advertise most jobs exclusively to that same group.”

Marketers who use ad targeting need to think very carefully about whether they could be wrongfully discriminating against certain people. For instance, could basing your ad targeting on one of the attributes offered by Facebook Business inadvertently prevent users from a certain demographic group from seeing your ads? This is especially pertinent to marketers who are advertising jobs, public-funded opportunities, learning courses and other products where equal access and opportunity is of the highest importance.

In our view, there are two key areas marketers need to focus on to limit the potential for targeted advertising to be discriminatory:

1. Avoiding active discrimination. Don’t target audiences based on factors like age, gender and ‘ethnic affinity’ in cases where this denies access to information or opportunities that should be universal.

2. Avoiding passive discrimination. Analyse how including or excluding interest groups and other attributes in targeted marketing campaigns affects visibility to demographic groups. If focusing on a certain interest seems to disproportionately exclude people with disabilities or those of a certain gender, race or sex, you may need to consider tweaking your targeting to bring excluded people back into your marketing reach.

For more on this subject, we recommend reading the following report: ‘Potential for Discrimination in Online Targeted Advertising’.

The academics behind the report argue that “An intentionally malicious—or unintentionally ignorant— advertiser could leverage [user data in social media marketing services] to preferentially target (i.e., include or exclude from targeting) users belonging to certain sensitive social groups (e.g., minority race, religion, or sexual orientation).”


Who is responsible for disability and discrimination compliance?

In a perfect world, every brand/marketing team would have a dedicated team member responsible for disability and discrimination compliance.

The lack of jobs advertised for such roles suggests many teams do not find this to be viable, and as such, compliance is rolled into the job descriptions of marketing compliance officers, marketing managers, and other team members who are broadly responsible for ensuring communications are up to code.

In our experience, the best approach to disability and discrimination compliance is to make a certain team member responsible for sign-off – and, crucially, also to train all marketing team members on the most important points of compliance and good practice.

You could start by encouraging all team members to read the guidelines detailed in the first section of this article.


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