Two of Australia’s biggest retailers, Target and Kmart, have been praised for embracing a ‘new normal’ after including people with disability and from diverse cultural backgrounds in their advertising.
Featuring in recent catalogues and television commercials have been children with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, as well as children who have lost limbs.
The models have also included people of various ethnicities and religious backgrounds, including Asian Australians and a woman wearing a hijab.
But a mother, who helped inspire the shift after her son became the first child with Down syndrome to appear in an Australia-wide advertising campaign for children’s clothes, says more effort is needed to make advertising inclusive.
“Target and Kmart in the last year have been brilliant . . . [but] when you look at other big brands in Australia, what they have done is not common,” said Catia Malaquias, who also founded Starting With Julius, an organisation promoting inclusion of people with disability in mainstream culture.
The retailers, both owned by ASX-listed giant Wesfarmers, say diversity in their ads is not a new focus, but an extension of their overall commitment to inclusion.
“We were pleased to feature a number of models who reflected the Australian population, who are not only our customers but also our team members,” said Kristene Reynolds, Target’s general manager of corporate affairs.
A Kmart spokesperson echoed the sentiments, saying “inclusion is important to us . . . no matter a person’s race, gender, ethnicity, age, ability, appearance or attitude.”
Ms Malaquias said she hoped to see more advertisers routinely represent people with disability – who account for one in five Australians – as customers, employees and members of society.
“Inclusive advertising is really about representing people with a disability alongside others in the community. It’s not advertising about disability as such, but advertising that represents people with disability incidentally as part of the community,” she said.
The Target and Kmart ads, which have been received positively on social media, reflect a shift in community standards that is being celebrated by diversity advocates.
“You can’t underestimate the power of the incidental advertising, because that really challenges people’s perceptions of who are the individuals who need to be in particular roles in society,” said Lisa Annese, who heads the Diversity Council of Australia.
However, Ms Annese also insists that more is needed to ensure Australian mainstream media routinely represents diversity.
“There are some out-there organisations that have done a bit in their advertising. But if you’re looking at genuine representations in media, especially in entertainment, there is still a long, long way to go,” she said.
Perth-based Ms Malaquias said she had reached out to various companies, including the retailers, after her son, Julius, now seven, appeared in advertising for children’s clothing label eeni meeni miini moh in 2013.
“What that basically allowed us to do was to use that example of Julius in a mainstream ad campaign to start a discussion about disability and advertising,” she said.
“It just really struck me, to see and to feel it personally. The exclusion of people like my son and families like ours.”
Twenty-year-old Robyn Lambird, who has cerebral palsy and is an ambassador for Starting With Julius, modelled active-wear in Target’s spring catalogue and is one of the first adults with visible disability to feature in Australian mainstream advertising.
Ms Lambird, who competes in wheelchair racing, said she had not previously considered modelling as a career opportunity.
“Just because I’d never seen it,” she said.
Ms Lambird, who has a YouTube channel where she discusses stereotypes surrounding disability, said the ads “normalised” disability.
“[Disability] is a big part of our lives and it’s important to our identity. But it’s not the whole picture and that’s not all you should see. It’s showing people that you can’t put disability in a box, and we’re all individuals.”
The chief executive of advertising industry body The Communications Council, Tony Hale, said that diversity in advertising presented differently as community standards evolved.
“Advertising tends to reflect those community standards; or community standards can reflect advertising,” Mr Hale said.
“I think [Target and Kmart] are broad-based, mass-marketed brands and, therefore, have a diverse audience. But I don’t think their communication strategy has [in the past] been as such.”
He said he would not be in favour of diversity guidelines or quotas being imposed on the self-regulated industry as consumers were already able to “vote with their feet, or vote with their wallets” and “clever advertisers will work it out themselves.”
“I think these brands are smart in that what they are doing is representing themselves as contemporary diverse brands that can appeal to multiple sectors within our community,” Mr Hale said.
“When you’re developing advertising campaigns, if you’re going too finite, you will never grow your business.”
The Diversity Council of Australia, which advises businesses on workplace diversity, claims inclusion in all areas of a business can benefit profitability, employee engagement and customer satisfaction.
Ms Annese said that Target’s and Kmart’s promise of low prices for customers, who she speculated were primarily families, meant the retailers could not afford to be seen as exclusive.
“When people think [of a] traditional normal family, rather than thinking this homogenous family of the past, they need to broaden their way of thinking, because the new normal is diverse,” she said.
But Ms Annese cautioned that advertising that aspired to being inclusive needed to represent diversity without appearing tokenistic.
“I think organisations shouldn’t be judged by one ad, but maybe by their ad plus by the way their brand behaves, [by] their policies and [by] the way they treat their staff,” she added.
Target’s Ms Reynolds said that while the retailer’s workforce included employees with disability, improvements could be made to the workplace to better accommodate their disability.
“There’s probably a little bit of work we need to do in that area and, obviously, we’re very open to it,” she said of Target’s work environment, which includes more than 300 stores.
The Wesfarmers website states that children with disability were first included in Kmart’s advertising in 2016 and plans are underway to employ more people with disability across the group.
A spokesperson for Kmart told The Citizen a recruitment plan was being developed to increase diversity in the company’s workforce.
“We have worked hard to develop a recruitment plan and will continue to refine this to ensure it is inclusive and people with disabilities can participate equitably,” the spokesperson said.