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Beware the Scare Tactics: Stop Negative Portrayals of Disability in PSAs

04/28/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Fear mongering has long been a major tactic used in advertisements and public service announcements. It grabs the attention of viewers, gives them pause, and maybe even pushes them to take action. A new campaign about osteoporosis prevention uses this approach, claiming that a hideous fate is destined to befall any person who dares not immediately take better care of their bones.

What, exactly, is the hideous fate at stake? Using a wheelchair. Apparently, needing to use a wheelchair is the ultimate tragedy. "Beware the Chair," warns the PSA. It's catchy. It stays with you in a way that's haunting and unsettling. The problem is that as a wheelchair user, the PSA has me on edge for a much different reason than its intent. I'm not frightened by the prospect of osteoporosis. I'm frightened by the fact that wheelchairs are portrayed as an object of doom.

The ad shows a manual wheelchair being rigged to move via remote control, and then set loose in public while empty to chase people down. Combined with creepy horror movie music, the visual of an empty wheelchair moving on its own is meant to somehow convey the risks of osteoporosis.

This PSA takes the very serious matter of osteoporosis and turns it into a sideshow. I understand the intention behind the campaign is positive, but it is neither well thought out nor well executed. The ridiculous prank of being chased by empty wheelchairs might be memorable, but it does absolutely nothing to effectively educate the public. There are barely any facts included in the video, so it becomes all about the fear of wheelchairs, and on a larger scale, of disability.

Beware the Chair has it all wrong. Wheelchairs are not the enemy. Osteoporosis is the real enemy. But the problem is that even though Beware the Chair is supposedly trying to warn against neglecting bone health, its messaging is muddled and unclear. It portrays wheelchair use as the problem rather than osteoporosis.

It becomes evident by the end of the PSA that people are more focused on landing in a wheelchair than on the rest of the health issues that osteoporosis entails. Three women are quoted, each responding to the fear they experienced from being chased by the empty wheelchair.

"Beware of the wheelchair," cautions one woman. "If you don't pay attention to osteoporosis, you're gonna wind up in one."

"I definitely don't wanna end up in a chair," proclaims another.

"I'm definitely gonna talk to my doctor about osteoporosis," the third woman concludes. "I don't want any part of it."

These women don't even acknowledge the major health risks that accompany osteoporosis; that doesn't seem to be their main concern. Forget weakened bones, fractures, and pain. What these women don't want is to become disabled. This campaign, then, instills the wrong fears: fear of disability and fear of needing a mobility device. Beware the Chair's scare tactics promote stigma, not health.

And that's a shame. The PSA misses key opportunities to educate the public, instead misleading us through the misuse of scare tactics. You know when scare tactics should be used in advertising? To warn against life-threatening behaviors. Showing images of the wreckage from a drunk driving accident, or of a person with end-stage emphysema struggling to take their last breaths - that is a true public service. If the fear caused by a PSA prevents someone from smoking a cigarette or getting behind the wheel while intoxicated, that's powerful advertising done right.

But to depict mobility devices as being the worst aspect of osteoporosis is flat out inaccurate, especially when in some instances, osteoporosis can actually be fatal. Trust me, I know how crucial it is to monitor bone density and take steps to avoid osteoporosis. And I believe with all my heart that people should be much more aware of how best to care for their bone health, especially because due to the nature of my disability, I have osteopenia, which is the precursor to osteoporosis. It's important to note, though, that this is NOT the reason that I use a wheelchair. In fact, using my wheelchair keeps me much safer. It helps me to avoid falls or other movements that could potentially lead to breaking a bone.

Unfortunately, Beware the Chair's PSA has a different takeaway about wheelchairs, ending with a call to action that cuts deep. "Stand up to osteoporosis. Before you can't." I'm here to tell you that I'm sitting down, but I'm still on board with the prevention of osteoporosis. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. And I, for one, have grown weary of having an aspect of my existence constantly used as an ominous prop or symbol. My wheelchair is a source of mobility and freedom, not something to be regarded with dread. So this is my PSA, and it's one I hope society will finally hear: fight disease, prevent fatalities, but please, stop rejecting part of who I am on your mission to get there.

Update: Within 24 hours of this post being published, FCB Health, the ad agency behind the campaign, put an end to it. This is all thanks to the power of social media and this is truly what community is all about. It's incredible how many fantastic advocates mobilized to get the job done. Also, thank you to FCB Health for acting so swiftly and respectfully. Check out the whole story here.

Emily Ladau is the proud owner of Social Justice Media Services, through which she harnesses the powers of communication and social media as tools for people of all abilities to become informed and engaged about disability and other social justice issues. Emily also maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.