Disabled model in nationwide Debenhams campaign

// 29 September 2010

Not being a fan of Gok Wan’s How To Look Good Naked, I hadn’t heard about the show’s campaign to get disabled models into high street stores, so I was pleasantly surprised when I walked past Debenhams at the weekend and saw this image (of Shannon Murray) in the window. Apparently they are also featuring mannequins with wheelchairs inside the stores. While featuring a woman whose disability is only manifest in her use of a wheelchair rather than in an obvious physical sense might be taking the easier route in terms of representing disabled women, I still think it’s a positive move. It’s the first time I’ve seen a wheelchair user in a shop window display, at least.

I wonder, though, how accessible the shops themselves are for wheelchair users and other people with disabilities – it’s all very well for high street fashion to try and embrace some disabled women in the name of getting more women to spend money so they can feel Gok-tastic (says the fashion-hating cynic in me) – but if this budding disability awareness stops at representation, it’s hardly good enough.


Comments From You

rich // Posted 29 September 2010 at 8:49 pm

Great idea and I like that they’re doing it BUT (as with their over-40s model campaign lately) – why use models? Why not use “real” people? Still, I like Debenhams for doing this. It’s a step in the right direction and certainly makes the demographic of their models more towards that of the general population.

People come in all sorts of colours, shapes, sizes and abilities (etc) – ad campaigns should reflect this!

polly // Posted 29 September 2010 at 9:42 pm

Well I agree that apart from the fact she’s a wheelchair user, she’s a conventionally attractive looking white thin blonde. So it’s not exactly revolutionary.

I noticed this a while ago and asked a friend who is sometimes a wheelchair user what she thought, and she said she thought it was probably a publicity stunt, but that any positive images of disabled women were better than none, since women are going to be objectified anyway! It’s a pity people can’t realise disability does not = wheelchair user though. The Debenhams near me seems reasonally wheelchair accessible, like most big shops nowadays, but I’m not sure whether they offer any other services for say, customers with a visual or hearing impairment.

Jen // Posted 30 September 2010 at 9:49 am

I dunno, having seen How To Look Good Naked when I was in the UK, I thought there was a distinctly sadistic streak to it, I didn’t like for instance seeing him hose down a pool-full of extremely-distressed-looking naked chicks, and I certainly wouldn’t trust his motives for getting disabled women into high street clothes shops. In fact, it creeps me out a little that he’d try.

It’s about more than representation. For a start, we’re talking about a clothes shop, and specifically a display in a clothes shop. What do we usually dislike about pictures of models in shops? Less that they’re always of tall thin blonde or brunette women, more that they’re objectifying: we’re looking at a 2-D image, the object of which is a woman, with certain physical attributes brought into relief. I mean, that’s the job of the photographer, the model – and a skilled one on both parts. But the result is a branded image for a clothes shop.

That kind of representation isn’t good for the tall, thin, able-bodied woman, in that she is reduced to her ‘beauty capital’, and all the various things this entails. Why would it be any better for a disabled woman?

Although, this throws something else into sharp relief: I was going to say, I would fucking think that there are greater accolades for disabled women than being condescended to by a Debenhams ad campaign. But I would have thought that was true of all of us. Do we really want to be more effectively targetted by ad campaigns? Is this about feminism? Or is it about our relationship to the women working on the advertising campaign? Or to Gok Wan himself (total massively creepy fuck that he is)?

Lara // Posted 30 September 2010 at 3:05 pm

Seems a little tokenistic, really. I mean, how does it marry up to their campaign? At least, for example, Dove using ‘normal’ women was linked to their campaign for real beauty. This just seems like a massive PR stunt. And it’s worked.

Hannah // Posted 30 September 2010 at 7:15 pm

I heard about this on the radio the other day (Start the Week? I don’t think it was Woman’s Hour but I could be wrong) and the Debenhams representative refused to be drawn on whether they’d use the same marketing strategy again, saying vaguely that they’d have to wait until the feedback came through on the campaign. The disability rights spokeswoman kept stressing that it was a breakthrough and would lead the way to advertising that was more representative of all abilities, but I’m not sure how much I share her optimism.

I think it was a great campaign for Debenhams to have run, but, being realistic about the motives of companies – which after all, exist to make money – I’m pretty sure that Debenhams ran it on the basis of its novelty, not because they’re all closet activists behind their smart corporate suits. Not that I think they’re evil either, just that they wouldn’t put anything in a campaign unless it sold, and new and striking campaigns sell product. I do wonder whether wheelchair models will be seen as ‘done’ now by advertisers, simply because Debenhams got there first, and any future ad campaigns by Debenhams or other companies using models in wheelchairs won’t have that crucial shock of the new.

@Polly, you make a good point about disability always being equated with wheelchairs, but now the most obvious angle on disability has been ‘done’, there’s the possibility that other advertisers might now use models with different sorts of disabilities in adverts, to put their own new slant on what Debenhams has done. Still, I’m hesistant to extrapolate anything about a future golden age of enlightened advertising from this one instance, exciting as the Debehams campaign is. This might end up being similar to Dove’s ‘real beauty’ campaign, which (if I remember rightly) didn’t work as well as hoped.

I should add, I really don’t want to look like a hopeless cynic and I would love to be proven wrong, and for Debenhams’ campaign to pave the way for more representative advertising!

Hannah // Posted 30 September 2010 at 7:20 pm

I forgot to add: it’s not just that using disabled models is something new and striking for advertisers to do, but that it is also something that there was a demand for and that could get a company tons of free publicity, because of Gok Wan’s campaign. With that in mind, I’m only surprised no-one else got there first! Whether this is a demand that is anything more than transitory, lasting for the duration of a TV series, is another matter.

Beth // Posted 2 October 2010 at 10:47 pm

To me this just seems like fashions usual stance of objectifying women, it just so happens that the woman in this case is a wheelchair user. I agree that it’s just a massive publicity stunt.

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