BRUSSELS, Belgium — The image is familiar: a blond beauty in a plunging black bra smiles directly at the camera, throwing out a challenge for onlookers to “look me in the eyes ... I said the eyes.”
This time however, the viewer's gaze is distracted not only by her shapely cleavage, but also her left arm, which ends, handless, just below the elbow.
The advertisement — placed in Belgian newspapers and on postcards distributed in cafes and restaurants around Brussels — is part of a campaign to raise awareness of handicap issues.
“People often think that handicapped people don’t have a personality, that they are strange people,” explained Tanja Kiewitz, whose image adorns the ad. “They have to see that I’m a woman above all and that I can be beautiful and sexy, and the handicap is secondary.”
The controversial ad has made the 35-year-old graphic designer an overnight star well beyond the borders of Belgium. Since the photograph first appeared in late September, Kiewitz has featured in television reports, magazines and newspaper articles around Europe.
“There’s been a huge reaction,” she told GlobalPost. “I’ve been besieged on Facebook. Mostly the reactions have been great, really positive feedback. I’ve got journalists from around the world calling; it’s been a bit crazy.”
The advertisement was part of a campaign by a non-profit organization, CAP48, which campaigns for handicapped people in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
“The idea was to try to change the way so-called normal people view the handicapped,” said Johan Stockmann, communications and partnership officer of CAP48. “They look at the handicap, not at the person. We want to change that.”
Stockmann says 99 percent of reactions to the ad have been positive. However there has been criticism. A complaint lodged with Belgium’s advertising standards watchdog said the “questionable” picture “risked discrediting a much needed solidarity campaign.”
The complaint was quickly rejected by the Jury of Advertising Ethics, which found that the ad in no way undermined the dignity of handicapped people. “I think those few negative reactions also show that we’ve achieved our aim of provoking a response,” Stockmann said.
Kiewitz, who works with the advertising agency that produced the ad, said she had no doubts when asked to imitate the pose of supermodel Eva Herzigova in the famous Wonderbra ads of the 1990s.
“I had no hesitation about doing it, but I was a bit nervous about appearing like that in front of the photographer. I’m not a prude, but my arm has always been something very intimate for me. My friends gave me a lot of support and after a couple of glasses of wine it all went fine,” she said.
The publicity generated by Kiewitz’ photo appears to have given a boost to CAP48’s fundraising efforts. An annual telethon on the RTBF network gathered more than 4 million euros for the organization, up 10 percent on last year and representing almost 1 euro for every French-speaking Belgian.
“We knew the campaign would have a big impact because of its veracity,” said Stockmann. “There were a number of factors, but the campaign generated a lot of visibility.”
The run up to the telethon also featured a series of television ads in which unsuspecting members of the public are secretly filmed on the terrace at a Brussels cafe becoming increasingly uncomfortable under the fixed gaze of people at surrounding tables. The tagline? “Feeling different is unbearable; for handicapped people it’s like that everyday.”
Kiewitz laughs off suggestions that her pictures could lead to a new modeling career, but she hopes that it could open up more opportunities for the handicapped in advertising and the media.
“It would be good if handicapped people started to be used to advertise other things,” she said. “Why shouldn’t somebody with a disability be a model? It would make a change from those models who all look alike. Why don’t we have more people in wheelchairs speaking on TV, they can speak as well as anybody else.”
As well as seeking to change the views of others, Kiewitz said the photo shoot has given her the opportunity to take a fresh look at the handicap she was born with.
“This has done me a lot of good. I’m a very confident person in my work, my career, but I’ve always been sensitive about my arm. When it comes to stripping off on the beach in the summer, I’m self-conscious about it. That’s changing now. I’m starting to feel proud of my handicap."