Eye Tracking Technology Measures Reactions to Seeing Amputees in Commercials

When viewing commercials, it is common to see individuals of different races, genders, ages and body types casted to reach out to a wide range of audiences. However, one group that seems to be underrepresented is that of individuals with disabilities.

“Why aren’t people with disabilities used in advertising? Well, it depends. The casting director has one opinion, while the brand manager might have another, so it is not a simple question,” Olan Farnall, PhD, assistant professor at Texas Tech University, told O&P Business News.

Olan Farnall

Olan Farnall

According to Farnall, using individuals with disabilities in commercials and other forms of advertising relates back to research performed in the 1960s on creating advertisements using African Americans. 

“[In the 1960s] brands were terribly afraid that if [advertisers] put a black person in a commercial for milk then the white population would revolt against that particular brand,” Farnall said. “Research proved that was probably an unwarranted fear. Then, in reading the disability literature, we found that the basis for the way that non-disabled individuals look at disabled people is with either a pity or fear approach, which is totally irrational.”

Eye tracking technology

Currently, Farnall is using eye tracking technology at Texas Tech University to see if non-disabled individuals still respond with pity or fear when viewing advertisements that feature individuals with disabilities.

“What I have been doing is looking at how people respond to both television ads and print ads that contain images of disability,” Farnall said. “Looking at terms of do they spend more time looking at this visual because it is unusual, because it is a novelty? There is a whole theoretical base on novelty that says when something is new or we don’t know what it is we pay attention. Or is it the opposite? Is there, in fact, a repulsion that the eyes will give away?”

Using a camera that measures where the eye focuses in real time with a laser, Farnall tracked participants’ eyes as they watched commercials that featured amputees. At first, he believed the commercials may be too much for viewers to handle, but found there was “a great deal more acceptance [than expected] no matter how stark the image.”

“[Eye tracking technology] is a neat thing that is being used a lot in advertising originally to trace where the eye focuses on the printed page,” Farnall said. “On a print ad I can draw a small focus area around a disability [and see if the] eye goes to that spot or if the eye avoids that spot under all circumstances. It simply lets us trace where the participant looked and how long they stay[ed] there… It is not an attitude change. There is no attitude measure, just did they see it and did they turn away?”

Ability Integrated Advertising on television

Farnall’s research on eye tracking technology follows his work with colleague, Kelli Lyons, of Texas Tech University, on the portrayal of disability in television advertising published in 2012 in Disability Studies Quarterly. The study analyzed a number of prime-time commercials on network and cable television to see if they included images of disability.

“I replicated a study that had been done in 1991, but with better methodology and also inclusion of cable television, because [the other study] had only looked at network television,” Farnall said. “We looked at prime-time television and we looked at all the ads whether local or national, simply looking for portrayals of physical disability.”

The researchers viewed 50 hours of programming recorded over 21 days for 3 hours to 5 hours in random 1-hour blocks from 10 channels with a total sample of 1,671 commercials. Study results showed cable channels carried more Ability Integrated Advertising (AIA) vs. network channels. However, only 1.7% of commercials contained individuals who displayed a disability, including 17% wheelchair bound, 17% blind, 17% with mental issues, 10% amputees, 4% deaf/mute and 35% labeled as other.

“This study seemed to present a positive picture, but I don’t think it is universal and that is certainly disappointing,” Farnall said. “What we are trying to do now is go back to the people who are in the business of picking actors and writing commercials and show them why [using individuals with disabilities] is a good thing.” — by Casey Tingle

For more information:
Farnall OF. Disabil Stud Q. 2012;32:1.

Disclosures: Farnall and Lyons have no relevant financial disclosures.

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