Advertising Feminism Marketing Millennials

Laughing WITH The Disabled – Anatomy of An Ad

By Posted 29 September 2016

I think I’ve found a real contender for best ad of the year. Really. A lot of you won’t know what I’m talking about. It aired in the UK a few weeks ago but we didn’t get it here in Aus. My advice is to stop everything you’re doing and watch it right now:

See what I mean? Yeah.

This ad aired for the first time during the Paralympic Opening Ceremony and it immediately exploded on Twitter. Everybody was talking about it and everybody loved it.

Well. Almost. For some, it was a little too naughty. But every good ad campaign needs a little controversy, and for every disapproving tweet from a befuddled Gen X or Baby Boomer, there were fifteen excited millennials singing its praises.

And the fact is, this ad wasn’t for the crusty oldies or the cynics – it was targeted straight at a younger, more liberal generation. It’s raunchy, funny, feminist, disabled-positive and wildly progressive. I barely know where to start singing its praises. (I might need to clarify here: this post is not sponsored by Maltesers or by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the firm behind the campaign).

Okay, before I do unleash the fangirl within, let’s get the full story behind this piece of genius. Basically, the UK’s Channel 4 ran a competition to encourage brands to include more actors with disabilities in their marketing. The prize was one million pound’s worth of free advertising during the Paralympics. Not bad, hey.

The clear winner was MARS Co’s Malteser’s campaign ‘Look on the Light Side’, which is a series of three TV ads, starring four disabled actors in lead roles.  The series was inspired by real-life awkward stories from disabled people and was made with the assistance of Scope, a charity advocating for equal opportunities for disabled people. So they’ve got the consultation and issue-sensitivity thing down pat. Kudos.

You can get a bit more insight on what the campaign’s all about here:


Now, back to my happy rave. Like I said, there are sooooo many good elements to this ad, but I’ll try to contain myself and break down why it works so well.

First, it takes the trope of sexy chocolate advertising and turns it upside down. Ads that conflate sex and chocolate are getting old. The chocolate/sexy times binary has started to crumble under the sheer weight of millennial disinterest – Maltesers saw that coming. Instead of a Lindt-style ad featuring a beautiful woman sensually biting into a piece of chocolate that might as well be a phallus for all the eyes she’s making at it, you have a group of women laughing about an awkward incident in sex. And it doffs its hat in a gloriously tongue-in-cheek way to that traditional cliché that makes eating chocolate a sex act, by using chocolate to illustrate a sex act. So Meta.

The fact that it’s three women talking is a pretty big deal too. Despite Sex and the City, women laughing about sex and romance (AND MEN!) is still pretty novel. Especially in advertising.  The progressive, feminist message is highlighted further when the lead actor turns the ‘that’s what she said’ idiom on its head. ‘That’s what he said,’ she laughs. It music to a millennial’s progressive ears.

But of course, the highlight of this ad is the fact that the main character (played by actor Storme Toolis) has cerebral palsy. Disabled people are grossly under-represented in the media so Toolis’ main role in the ad is impressive in itself. But Maltesers could have gone with the tried-and-tested disabled-person-as-a-superhuman routine. It’s pretty much THE gimmick during the Paralympics. And I mean, disabled people ARE incredible. But they’re also people. Instead of another heart-felt and inspiring ad campaign that unavoidably points out the differences between the disabled and able-bodied, Maltesers opted for hilarity and for humanity.

The anecdote Toolis shares is awkward, funny, and quite radical.  A disabled person with a sex life is absolutely unheard of in the mainstream media.  That’s the real power of this ad. It’s normalising what is considered ‘abnormal’ in the media, and it’s doing it in a powerful way. It reminds viewers that yeah – we all have sex, and yeah – sometimes it’s really, really awkward. Awkward and funny – the perfect subject for a brand whose tagline is ‘the lighter way to enjoy chocolate”.

It’s honest and unapologetic, bringing the lives of disabled people to the fore, both the exceptionality and the normality of those lives. The scene challenges a ton of traditional ideas and taboos around disability, femininity and prime-time decency. Plus, it forces people to think differently about disability. It’s crazy because it’s an ad about Maltesers, for god’s sake. But, it’s an ad that actually has the power to create social change.

And that’s exactly why millennials love it. Maltesers have hitched their wagon to the forward progress train and we’re on board.

P.s If you want to check out the other two ads in the series:

Dance Floor:


Theo’s Dog:


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