Fear For Sale

United States

new internationalist
issue 233 - July 1992

Three styles: MS Society trading on the tragedy of youth and beauty struck down; paternalism and patronage from Mencap; a welcome cry for justice from the Spastics Society.

Fear for sale
David Hevey blows the lid off the
disability charity advertising business.

[image, unknown] Benevolent advertising agencies see their charity clients as the 'heart of a heartless nation', the 'opiate of the handicapped' - to misquote Marx. The notion that disabled people are totally dependent on charity is so all-pervasive that it is inconceivable that an agency could even think of charging commercial rates. Both charities and the ad agencies who hold their accounts agree that the relationship is moral, not fiscal. Time and time again I have heard ad-men and women describe the charity account as something 'to get your teeth into and to be creative with, something which isn't the usual can of beans'.

The main task of the advertisers is to build a campaign which fights for the public's eye and opens the public's purse. The first stage is to create a 'brand awareness imagery which visualizes the impairment - and subtly links it to the charity client. The agency must find an image which gives the impairment a symbolic yet social identity. The body of the person with an impairment becomes both the essence and the symbol of disablement. The body is fragmented and the major fragment - the impairment - becomes the centre of attention.

Now the impairment has to be labelled so that it can be seen as 'owned' by the charity in question. This is branding. Like all commercial publicity, charity advertising needs both similarities and distinguishing marks. Disability charity advertising is almost always in black and white, while commercial ads are almost always in colour. Charity advertising sells fear, while its commercial equivalent sells desire. Charities promote a brand not to buy, but to buy your distance from.

Most disability charity ads carry at least two messages - one in the photo, one in the text. The photograph shows dependency and - if taken in isolation - futility and oblivion. The accompanying text often contains a 'scientific' challenge to the pictorial oblivion by adding objective 'facts' about the impairment. This may appear contradictory but actually has the effect of setting up the dependent-impairment versus active-charity dynamic in your head. The image posits futility and hopelessness, while the text suggests methods of cure, care or eradication. There is the past but there is also the future. The charity's simple logo lets you know that the future is in safe hands.

Next there is 'attitude change'. This will take the form of a brief description of the charity's efforts to alleviate or cure the impairment. It is never about how the disabled person is organizing against her or his oppression. Attitude change is the charities' dream of social change without political action.

The process can be seen in a number of campaigns. The UK-based Multiple Sclerosis Society campaign, with its memorable 'MS tears lives apart' slogan (accompanied by a dramatically ripped photo of an otherwise 'perfect' body), is a classic example. The first stage of their campaign established the tear or rip as the symbol of both impairment and the society. The ad features beautiful models with nothing to live for after their beauty is destroyed. The beast had come upon them.

The second stage of the Society's campaign shows a 30-year-old man being bathed. This is symbolic of the despair of the MS decline. MS has been tumed into a symbolic condition, rather than an actual one. MS is no longer real but is designed to mirror a fictional manifestation of the fear within the viewer. The subject has a mothering figure (a woman) bathing his physical self and his symbolic soul. The image shows his broad neck with her large hands and her muscular arm across it. Her sleeves are rolled up, she has a job to do. Her head leans forward and her forehead almost connects with his. Her activity and his passivity are constructed as a heterosexual male nightmare. Despite his bulky torso, he does not fill the bath. He has been both diminished and infantilized by his condition. His head tips down and his apparent sadness is written in the text, which reads: 'How does it feel to have the mental age of thirty and a physical age of one?' The final twist in this sorry saga is the knowledge that his mind is trapped in an asexual infantilized body.

A superficial analysis of these adverts would suggest that the MS can be tackled by giving the Society money. But this is not the only thing in the ad. Charities themselves have become victims of their own propaganda. A central myth is that charities exist exclusively in a two-way flow of giving between themselves and the public. But in reality their total income is broken down between assets, trading and voluntary giving. Of the voluntary giving about a third represents giving by legacy. The other two thirds of voluntary income comes from a host of sources including covenanted giving, payroll giving and the income generated by volunteers.

However, charity advertizing publicly marshals this diversity of income into the one mythical source of voluntary giving. It is imperative for a charity's fiscal privileges and their social status (as well as their domination of the disability agenda), that they are not seen to be active in business - or in politics. They portray themselves as the innocents in the commercial world, passively waiting for their goodness to translate into income. Advertising is a declaration of their goodness that provokes an avalanche of financial support from admirers. In the case of the UK MS Society for example the total voluntary income of their second year of the Tears Lives Apart campaign (1987/8) was £6,546,000 of which £4,654,000 was from legacies and other gifts and the rest from voluntary fund-raising. In fact during the years of the 'tear' Campaign the MS Society has fallen from 32 (1987) to 38 (1989) in the income league table of fundraising charities. What is more, this fall in its voluntary income suggests that the nega tive message of the 'tear' campaign could be losing the MS society up to a third of a million pounds a year.

But the MS society is not alone. Advertising simply does not pull in the money to nearly the extent charities (and advertisers) like to think. A recent Charities Aid Foundation report entitled 'Charity Household Survey 1989/90 : Who gives what and why', found that the most common way in which the public gave to charities was door-to-door collections and one of the least used methods of prompting someone to give was through general advertising campaigns - only one per cent were found to respond to this method. It is becoming clear to me (and I suspect to the charities, though their research on this is considered a commercial secret) that the central point of charity advertising is not just to raise money: at this it manifestly fails. Its central purpose is to appeal to the volunteer army of the charity involved - organized within regional and local 'self help' groups. Charity advertising is there to inform these people that they exist and that their mission is happening.

The question remains: why do people give at all? The central reason for giving to, or volunteering for, a particular charity is the psychic presence of the impairment in question within the living or folk memory of the giver. People give to charities representing impairments that they have some personal experience or knowledge of. Isolation and loss is how the charity consumer is taught to characterize impairments. The hope is that the image may prove cathartic both for the donors and for the disabled people they want to support. It cannot - because expectations are simply too high. The charity consumers have a living memory of the impairment. They see the charity image as an extemalized memory of pain. Perhaps they feel giving will purge this memory forever. The fact is that campaigns of advertising, direct mail, co-ordinated press work, volunteer door to door and street canvassing cannot sustain a large voluntary income unless this personal connection is made by the giver.

So disabled people are systematically treated as 'needy' - whereas the rest of society can enjoy the status of workers, producers and givers. Nowhere in the world - apart from the US - is there anti-discrimination legislation establishing civil rights for disabled people. To make matters worse disabled people are usually isolated even in their own families - unlike other oppressed groups which may unite and form communities along lines of class, race, gender or sexual orientation. Charity advertising does not in any way solve the problem of disabled people's isolation because it publicly validates it, feeds off it even.

Quite simply, disability charity advertizing fails. It does not directly generate enough money. It confuses 'disability' (which is the product of social discrimination) with 'impairment' (which is the product of a medical condition). But mostly it fails because it is the visual flagship for the myth of the tragedy of impairment. It is the higher ground to which all non-disabled society looks to unburden its guilt and its 'able-bodied' anxiety. What appears to be the heart of a heartless nation is itself one of the great bastions of the oppression of disabled people. The real 'tragic flaw' of this form of disability representation is the existence of impairment charities themselves and the way in which society substitutes charities as the altemative to giving disabled people our civil rights.

David Hevey is a London-based photographer. His recent book, The Creatures that Time Forgot (Routledge, 1992) deals with disability imagery.

It's art, it's politics, it's self expression. It's not therapy! Disability culture has taken off in a big way in the past few years. Theatre groups like London's Heart and Soul (consisting of people with intellectual impairments) don't just do a version of mainstream theatre - they perform their own plays about disability, about society. Others, like Samena Rana, use photography to present disability as seen by disabled people.


Dave - return of a Vietnam vet

Dave Evans I first got involved working in Cambodia about two years ago when another disabled Vietnam veteran talked to me about maybe setting up a rehabilitation centre in an area near Phnom Penh called Kien Khleang. When I got there I was taken aback by the amount of suffering in such a small area. The number of amputees - and their level of amputation - was overwhelming. In one building there were about 100 people who were the most severely disabled soldiers in Cambodia. Some were so badly injured that it was hard to imagine how to set about fitting them with limbs.

There were other reasons why coming back to southeast Asia to work was a powerful experience for me. I had been a marine in Vietnam during the war and had been involved in the invasion of Laos. Now it felt like coming full circle - like walking through that reflecting black granite Vietnam Veterans memorial stone in Washington and coming out in Cambodia. Many Westerners have forgotten that people are still hurting in southeast Asia and that we and people in the US Government are responsible. We bombed Cambodia - a neutral country - and in so doing drove Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge to power. We were responsible for the genocide that followed.

But in spite of this, the response we got from Cambodians when we started working at Kien Khleang was positive and friendly. They are gentle, accepting people - which is why the project worked so well. Of course they talked about how they got their injuries, about family members they lost in the holocaust. How could I say I was sorry and expect them to forgive me? Of course they couldn't. But I think that being an amputee myself helped. I empathised. I know their pain.

Anyway, we got to work at Kien Khleang using the Jaipur limb system. This artificial limb comes from India and is much better suited to conditions in developing countries than the expensive and inappropriate Western limbs that other agencies are using. What's more, with this system we are able to train Cambodians to manufacture and fit the limbs themselves. I must say I was originally opposed to the Jaipur limb. As a practitioner in the US I had heard so much negative criticism of it. But when I went to India - to Jaipur in fact - I was simply amazed at how effective it was. This limb is durable, it can be manufactured very inexpensively, anyone can learn to fit it.

It was then that I realized that the criticism had been coming from the international companies who were selling artificial limbs. They stood to lose a lot of money if the Jaipur system was adopted in developing countries instead of their own high-tech limbs. For example the imported limb that the International Red Cross is using in Cambodia costs, on average, $500. The cost of the Jaipur limb ranges from $26-$75 depending on the level of amputation. And it can be made from local materials. The International Red Cross limb and the Cambodia Trust devices have to be imported. These organizations are creating a dependency. We want to create independence. When we leave, the Cambodians will have a workable system of prosthetics that may not be the best in the world but which is definitely better than what they had before. They will be able to make limbs from materials available in Cambodia or in some cases from Vietnam - and that's a whole lot closer than London or San Francisco.

What we want to do next is fine-tune the system and then take it out to the provinces in Cambodia and maybe even set up a program in Vietnam. When I was in Cambodia last I wore a Jaipur limb myself. The Cambodians loved it - every time I fell down while playing volleyball they laughed their asses off. There is a hell of a lot of satisfaction in this work - which is something that all the people in the Foundation who have been working in Cambodia have experienced. I feel that at some point we are making a difference. We are being the ambassadors we should have been back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dave Evans of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation is a consultant with the Kien Khleang project in Cambodia.

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