In January this year, 430 posters featuring children with disfigurements were displayed on stations throughout the London Underground, with the potential to reach 2.2 million commuters.
People were curious about how we had secured a partnership with Transport for London (TFL) which resulted in such coveted advertising space.
As with many successful relationships, this didn’t happen overnight: it has taken time and was based on compatibility and mutual benefit.
It takes time
This was not simply a question of getting space for an advertising campaign. It was part of Changing Faces's overall strategy aimed at increasing the visibility of people with disfigurements in the public arena, challenging negative or limiting assumptions about them and working towards social justice.
For several years, Changing Faces has worked with various institutions to promote equality. An essential part of this has been fostering links with the equal opportunity/diversity/inclusion departments of many organisations, one of which was TFL.
Our first posters appeared on the underground in 2002. We had already established a link with TFL’s equality and inclusion team and their support was a tangible way of showing their commitment to inclusion and diversity.
In 2003, TFL supported us for the second time, the result of a chance encounter with their Head of Media Relations at a Media Trust event. The first posters were so memorable that he had no hesitation in offering further support when I asked. We worked with TFL’s press office to promote this campaign, leading to significant media coverage. It was at the launch event at Westminster station that I met their then Head of Strategy and Development, and have kept in touch ever since.
When I approached him to support our latest Children’s Face Equality campaign, we were working with BBC Children’s on a documentary, Billboard Kids (shown on 6th March BBC 2 at 11.30 am). Mentioning this and how pleased the children would be to see their posters out there no doubt struck a chord with TFL. The filming on the underground also offered them a great promotional opportunity.
Disfigurement is a much stigmatised issue. Media and cultural imagery about disfigurement tends to be negative. Disfigurement is presented predominantly as a medical "problem" to be removed by surgery. There is a whole genre of TV documentary on disfigurement which focuses on extreme and rare "medical cases" with titles reminiscent of the language used in nineteenth century freak shows (eg Freak Show Family, The Boy with the New Head).
In fiction, disfigurement denotes the shady characteristics of a phantom-like figure hiding away in the shadows or the evil villain of the Bond film. Rarely are people with disfigurements portrayed having fun, enjoying relationships or taking part in everyday, ordinary activities. In advertising, any blemish or scar is airbrushed out so all we see are "perfectly" symmetrical "flawless" faces.
On a day-to-day level, travelling on the underground can be hard for people with disfigurements. Intrusive staring, furtive whispers and comments can make it very difficult for them to feel that this is a welcoming and safe environment. In September 2008, a BBC journalist shadowed a woman with Goldenhar Syndrome taking a train journey to work and was shocked at people’s reactions to her.
Having children with birthmarks, burns scars and craniofacial conditions (disfigurement which affects the shape of the face/skull) on posters on the underground was a direct way to address prejudices, and worked for the charity on a number of levels:
- It increased the visibility of disfigurement in a mainstream setting thus creating a sense of "normality" around the issue
The children on the posters were shown to be comfortable in their own skin and challenged people not to judge them based on their appearance
The campaign also worked to TFL’s advantage: by displaying the posters, TFL sent out a strong message about making the London Underground a welcoming/inclusive place for everyone.
Measuring the impact of this campaign is not easy. However, the feedback has been incredibly positive. Website hits almost trebled in the week when the posters were in the stations and media interest has been phenomenal, including articles in the Mirror, Mail on Sunday and the Metro and features on this Morning, BBC London news and Five news – with lots more to come when the documentary airs.
For more information on Changing Faces, and the Face Equality campaign, go to www.changingfaces.org.uk