Advertising & Disability

How Could The Ad of the Year Be Such a Loser?

The luster of Paralympics gold is waning in the minds of advertisers and agencies (not that it shined brightly among marketers in the first place), but advertising and disability continues to win big…sort of. This year, at the 10th Annual ADCOLOR Awards, which is the advertising industry’s premier event recognizing work that promotes diversity and multiculturalism, the Ad Of The Year went to “How Do You See Me.” Produced by ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad was for CoorDown, Italy’s national organization for people with Down syndrome, but the well-intentioned ad has actually generated heated conversations and negative commentary among many vocal advocates in the disability community.

According to Saatchi & Saatchi, this ad is “aimed to ignite a conversation around how those living with down syndrome see themselves and how they are sometimes disadvantaged when people pre-judge them based on their condition. People with Down syndrome are often victims of discrimination, and even more than what is said about them, the way other people look at them is a common indicator of this type of prejudice, as shared by ad agency. Prior to seeing the woman with Down syndrome, she is conveyed only through voice-over, providing an internal monologue for a character played by actress Olivia Wilde. The woman with Down syndrome says ‘This is how I see myself,’ as Wilde runs on the beach with her family, works in a restaurant, dances with friends. ‘I see myself as an ordinary person… How do you see me?’ she asks at the end. This implies that people with Down syndrome or other disabilities could be reduced to just that part of their identity. The commercial’s intention was to change how people with Down syndrome are viewed — and to encourage others to look beyond their perceived disability and instead consider their whole person.”

Before I share why so many are so upset by the ad, take a look for yourself.

If you see nothing wrong with the ad and it makes you feel good I’d like to introduce you to the concept of ableism. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities, and as inferior to the non-disabled.

The challenges with this ad start with the creative concept, but go well beyond the ad itself, to it being awarded as the ad of the year. Industry judges and other influencers who are championing diversity and inclusion don’t see the major issues many within the disability community are easily pointing out.

Sure, many can easily spot racism (check out this example) or sexism (one of the best explainers ever) in advertising, but ableism may be a bit trickier, at least for the uninformed, to catch.

What if the ad dealt with women’s body image? Should average-sized women look in the mirror and see a thinner person, or should the person gazing at their reflection be happy with their weight? Dove’s groundbreaking and award-winning Real Beauty campaign has unapologetically included average-sized women.

If the ad were supporting racial equality, would it make sense if a person of color looking in a mirror saw a white person?

How would this same campaign concept translate to other disabilities? What if the ad was to advocate for greater wheelchair accessibility and inclusion? Should a person in a wheelchair be seen looking in the mirror and their reflection is of someone standing up?

I agree with the goals of the campaign, just not the creative execution. And I’m not the only  one. Here are articles here, here and here sharing their discomfort with the ad, and others sharing their comments on Twitter.

This video by BBC 3 brings much more visibility and voice directly to the people with disabilities.

Limiting the visibility of the person with Down syndrome to, for the most part, just their voice, in a campaign to try and promote inclusion is antithetical to the campaign’s goal. People with disabilities are already marginalized and vastly underrepresented in media and need to have a larger, more prominent presence. The negative commentary surrounding the CoorDown ad opens the conversation around an important tension in how people discuss and portray disabilities. Many in the disability community want to be seen within, and representing the disability minority group, owning unashamedly every aspect of who they are. Ad campaigns should welcome and incorporate these differences rather than try and fit the disabled minority into the standards of able-centric society.

Hopefully creative directors, agencies and advertisers looking to bring disability inclusion and advocacy into their ad campaigns won’t view this ad of the year as a benchmark to build on.