NEW YORK • 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 is a typical holiday toy advertisement 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 have become more visible recently.
In addition to Lili, the two-year- old model from Budapest featured in the Fisher-Price advertisement, people with Down syndrome have appeared in advertisements for Target, McDonald's, crafts chain A.C. Moore and 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 - 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 US 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 Mr Bob Witeck, a former executive with the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and a communications strategist in Washington, DC, who tracks advertisement spending.
Ms Teresa Gonzalez Ruiz, vice- president for brand marketing at Fisher-Price, said the company began using child models with Down syndrome last year in response to the increasing diversity of its global customer base.
"The consumer mindset has really changed," she said. "Millennials are so in tune with causes. The biggest shift I've seen as a marketeer is that in the past three to five years of talking to mums, they care about the product, but they also really want to know where the company stands."
Down syndrome, a chromosomal 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 is about time advertisers noticed the distinctive beauty of people with the condition.
"My goal is simply to raise awareness that these kids can be models too and then the world sees them," said Ms Meagan Nash of Buford, Georgia, whose 15-month-old son Asher has Down syndrome and will soon be modelling for the OshKosh children's clothing line.
But that does not mean it is easy for a child or an adult with Down syndrome to land a modelling job. Ms Nash waged a social media campaign over the summer to have Asher considered as an OshKosh model. She said she submitted his pictures for a casting call, but was told they were not included in the final round because the retailer had not specifically asked for child models with special needs.
After she posted a picture of her son and told her story on Facebook, the story went viral. Photos of Asher hamming it up on a couch during a private photo shoot have appeared in social media feeds as far away as Spain. The story made its way to OshKosh, which said in a statement that it was not the company that turned Asher down, but rather the talent agency. OshKosh invited Asher to a photo shoot for the company's holiday advertisement campaign.
Jamie Brewer, who had a recurring role on the television show American Horror Story, last year became the first model with Down syndrome to walk in a New York Fashion Week runway show, modelling clothes for 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 TV shows. Many say it began with Corky, the character played by Chris Burke on Life Goes On, the first TV series to regularly feature someone with Down syndrome. The show, which premiered in 1989, was seen as groundbreaking.
But from there, advocates say it has been a long, slow road towards the Fisher-Price advertisement and fashion runways.
"It has never been like the way it is now," said Ms Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society.