Marks & Spencer Praised for Including Disabled Child in Holiday Campaign


Four-year-old Seb White will make history as the first model with a learning disability to be featured in a British TV commercial, thanks to UK mega-retailer Marks & Spencer.

Seb’s mother, Caroline, posted his picture on the M&S Facebook page to highlight the absence of disabled children in advertising back in August, and the high street brand invited his participation in a photo shoot for their print holiday catalogue. Seb’s stellar performance then resulted in an invitation to appear in their holiday TV campaign.

“He won his place in our TV ad thanks to the natural charm and magical personality he showed on set at our magazine shoot,” said Steve Sharp, executive director of marketing at M&S, to the Independent. “All the kids had great fun filming the ad and Seb really was one of the gang — which is exactly how it should be.”[more]

The commercial, above, was shot by Jake Nava, director of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, and features a new Rod Stewart cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“We are absolutely delighted,” commented Emma Harrison of Mencap, a charity for the learning disabled. “The fact that he has Down’s Syndrome and will be seen by millions of people on TV and in posters in stores will help us challenge some of the misunderstanding and prejudices that can make life difficult for so many children.” An example of a comment posted on the M&S Facebook page after the commercial debuted on British TV:

Hopefully more brands will think more inclusively and reflect the spectrum of society — and not just because it’s the spirit of the season — a lesson that the U.S. Republican Party is digesting following Mitt Romney’s defeat to Barack Obama on Tuesday night.

Already, we’ve seen Ryan, 6, also with Down’s syndrome, cast by Target in a children’s clothing ad, and Nordstrom featured him in a campaign several months later, which was praised by the Noah’s Dad blog, written by a father of a special-needs child. He noted Target’s restraint in not capitalizing on Ryan for PR purposes.

In 2011, then one-year-old Taya Kennedy charmed the modeling world and was signed by prestigious U.K. agency Urban Angels. “Taya is an incredibly photogenic, warm and smiley child, and that shines through in her photographs,” said Alysia Lewis owner of the agency. Taya also has Down syndrome.

Adult model Angela Rockwood is a star of Push Girls, the Sundance Channel series about four women in wheelchairs, and 11 years after her life-changing accident, she is modeling again in a national campaign for Nordstrom.

“After my accident, the thought of modeling didn’t even cross my mind,” said Rockwood who identifies as quadriplegic. “But what did occur to me was that I had been transported to the realm of the paralyzed for a reason. I realized I had a huge choice to make: to go down the positive path, be an example for others in similar positions and be a voice.”

Hollywood has cast two characters with Down syndrome, Corky from Life Goes On, played by Chris Burke, and currently, Lauren Potter on Glee, while other examples, still dismally sparse, of people with disabilities in the media include Starbucks, and Debenhams; Nike and L’Oreal’s inspirational commercials with real disabled athletes, Mutual of Omaha’s ad with Teal Sherer (The Election), and My Gimpy Life.

“There are an estimated 650 million persons living with disabilities in the world today,” writes Model Mayhem. “If one includes the members of their families, there are approximately 2 billion persons who are directly affected by disability, representing almost a third of the world’s population.”

There’s a big opportunity for the media to better represent for those 650 million and their families.

“The more people with special needs are portrayed in pop culture and advertising, the closer we can get to recognizing and accepting those with disabilities as part of the fabric of everyday society. So perhaps the real story will be when this is not a story at all.”