In a new commercial for the Fisher-Price Little People Sit ‘n Stand Skyway, Lili Boglarka Havasi claps and smiles as the cars zoom down the plastic raceway. It’s a typical holiday toy ad except for one fact: Lili has Down syndrome.
While many advertisers over the years have featured people with disabilities from time to time, models with Down syndrome recently have become more visible. In addition to Lili, the 2-year-old model from Budapest featured in the Fisher-Price ad, people with Down syndrome have appeared in ads for Target, McDonald’s, the crafts chain A.C. Moore and the online retailer Zulily. Models with Down syndrome have even been spotted recently on New York catwalks.
For advertisers, people with Down syndrome are not a large constituency — only about 6,000 babies with the condition are born in the United States each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 250,700 people with Down syndrome were living in the United States as of 2008. However, advertisers say that using models with Down syndrome or a physical disability allows them to communicate their values and connect with customers, particularly millennials, who respond to inclusiveness and are looking for “authenticity” in advertising.
Millennials “expect to see a broad cross-section of families, couples, and individuals, including people who are developmentally disabled as a matter of truthfulness,” said Bob Witeck, a former executive with the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and a Washington, D.C., communications strategist who tracks ad spending.
Teresa Gonzales Ruiz, the vice president of brand marketing at Fisher-Price, said that the company began using child models with Down syndrome last year in response to the increasing diversity of its global customer base.
“The consumer mind-set has really changed,” she said. “Millennials are so in tune with causes. The biggest shift I’ve seen as marketer is that in the past three to five years of talking to moms, they care about the product but they also really want to know where the company stands.”
Down syndrome, a genetic condition, carries physical traits including flat facial features, a small nose and an upward slant to the eyes. Parents of children with Down syndrome say it’s about time advertisers noticed the distinctive beauty of people with the genetic condition.
“My goal is simply to raise awareness that these kids can be models, too, and then the world sees them,” said Meagan Nash of Buford, Ga., whose 15-month-old son, Asher, has Down syndrome and will soon be modeling for the OshKosh children’s clothing line.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for a child or adult with Down syndrome to land a modeling job. Ms. Nash waged a social media campaign over the summer to have Asher considered as a model for OshKosh. She says she had submitted his pictures for a casting call but was told they weren’t included in the final round because the retailer hadn’t specifically asked for child models with special needs.
After she posted a picture of her son and told the story on Facebook, her story went viral. Photos of Asher hamming it up on a couch during a private photo shoot have appeared on social media feeds as far away as Spain. The story made its way back to OshKosh, which said in a statement that it wasn’t the company that turned Asher down but rather the talent agency. OshKosh invited Asher to a photo shoot for the company’s holiday ad campaign.
Ms. Nash said the fact that Asher has Down syndrome is not going to be the first thing people notice when they see the ad.
“They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, that boy has Down syndrome.’” she said. “They’re going to say, ‘Look at that jacket the boy is wearing in the ad.’”
Jamie Brewer, who had a recurring role on the TV show, “American Horror Story,” last year became the first model with Down syndrome to walk a New York Fashion Week runway show, modeling clothes for the designer Carrie Hammer, who regularly features unconventional models in her shows. This year, Jude Hass, a Texas teenager, became the first male model with Down syndrome to walk during Fashion Week. He was part of a fashion show that featured models with various disabilities. Madeline Stuart, 19, an Australian, bills herself as the first professional model with Down syndrome.
People with Down syndrome have been featured in acting roles, albeit in small numbers, on popular television shows. Many say it began with Corky, the actor Chris Burke’s character on “Life Goes On,” the first television series to regularly feature someone with Down syndrome. The show, debuted in 1989, was seen as groundbreaking.
But from there, advocates say it’s been a long, slow road toward the Fisher-Price ad, fashion runways and other milestones.
“It has never been like the way it is now,” said Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time before in which you would see an ad with a Down syndrome model and a TV show” with an actor who also has Down syndrome.
In 2015, a group called Changing the Face of Beauty set out to find 15 retailers to commit to using models with disabilities in their advertisements. The group, spearheaded by Katie Driscoll of Chicago, who has a 7-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, wound up securing commitments from more than 100 companies.
“We focus on what a smart business decision it is to include people with disabilities in advertisements,” Ms. Driscoll said. “You are essentially leaving a lot of money on the table, otherwise.”
Izzy Bradley, a 4-year-old from Stillwater, Minn., who has Down syndrome, has appeared in three Target ads in the past three years, and has another in the works. Her mother, Heather Bradley, said the ads simply feature her child playing with toys and don’t “draw attention to the fact that she has Down syndrome.”
A spokeswoman for Target, Jenna Reck, said the use of children with Down syndrome in its advertising is part of a “concerted effort” on the part of the chain’s creative team to reach out to various communities within its customer base.
“It does not happen on a whim,” Ms. Reck said. “Target always wants to reflect its customers. As society changes and people’s views change, Target reflects that in its advertising, including using models with disabilities and Down syndrome.”
Karrie Brown, who has Down syndrome, appeared in an ad for the Wet Seal clothing store chain three years ago when she was 17. Her mom, Sue, a retired pediatric therapist who lives with her family in Collinsville, Ill., said Karrie loved Wet Seal clothes and was eager to show them off. She has since appeared in a training video for the Y.M.C.A. and landed a role in a short film.
“I’m more than a clothes model,” Karrie told her mom. “I’m a role model!”