I think it’s safe to say one of the first things students learn in Marketing and Advertising 101 is that one of the best ways to pull viewers in is to tug at their heartstrings. A prime example of this approach can be seen in a new commercial for Guinness beer, which you can view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwndLOKQTDs&feature=youtu.be
As I started to watch the ad, I was impressed by the accurate portrayal of a wheelchair basketball game, enough so that I could (almost) overlook the sappy background music. It was even okay when all the men but one got up from the wheelchairs, because it’s not uncommon for nondisabled people to play wheelchair sports, and when they take it seriously, it’s definitely not offensive. But then, as the men exit the gym, a deep voice goes on to say: “Dedication, Loyalty, Friendship…The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.” To me, this seems to relegate disabled people to the status of a community service project.
The brand’s tag line, which is shown at the end of the commercial, is “Made of More.” Of course, this refers to the beer, but there is arguably a double meaning behind it. When a commercial makes you feel warm and fuzzy, you’ll associate those positive feelings with the brand that’s being promoted, thereby making you more likely to buy the product, which in this case, is the Guinness. Essentially, the underlying take-away message of the ad is that it demonstrates good character when an able-bodied person befriends a disabled person. Those who do so are “made of more.”
At the end of the commercial, all the men who were playing basketball are hanging out and drinking Guinness. If Guinness had made a commercial in which a bunch of guys were out on a Friday night drinking together, and one of them just happened to be in a wheelchair, that would have been great. They could have made an inclusive ad without making it seem like spending time with a guy in a wheelchair means you’re a good person. He should have been just one of the guys without calling so much attention to it. Personally, if I made the commercial, I’d have had an empowering rock anthem in the background, eliminated the sap, and then after the game the guys would have gone out for drinks. That would be have been an awesome commercial.
Instead, Guinness objectifies disabled people. The message that choosing to be friends with a disabled person makes you a good Samaritan is constantly perpetuated by the media and it needs to stop. Disabled people are not here so we can make nondisabled people feel good about themselves. And yet, that’s exactly what this commercial seems to accomplish. You don’t have to take my word for it though; just read some of the comments under the video in the link I shared and you’ll see tons of people saying things like “this brought tears to my eyes” or “this was the nicest thing I’ve ever seen on television.”
Nicest thing for whom? Nice for you, the nondisabled viewer, because you can sit on your couch and feel momentarily good about the state of humanity? Would your eyes still well up with tears if the commercial showed a bunch of sweaty dudes without wheelchairs playing basketball and grabbing a beer? That doesn’t sound like a tear-jerker to me!
It is clear that the commercial tried to show the men building each other up and supporting each other, which is absolutely a great idea, but I question if Guinness considered how dehumanizing it actually is for disabled people to be depicted as needing kindhearted non-disabled people to pay them some attention. The friendship between the guys in the commercial is certainly portrayed as genuine, and that’s admirable, but why is friendship among diverse people so emotional and inspirational? That should be the norm…it’s 2013!
Including disabled people, whether in real life or in the media, is fantastic and definitely necessary. I’m obviously a huge advocate for inclusion both on and off the screen. But it’s time for advertisers and other media outlets to do it right. Disabled people are just people, not your good deed for the week. By representing inclusion of disabled people as inspiring, this both reflects existing social stigma and can cause nondisabled people to continue to subconsciously perceive us as somehow being less than. It’s time for disabled people to be portrayed realistically instead of stereotypically, because ultimately, everyone on this planet, disabled or not, is just one of the guys.
UPDATE: In response to the many comments I have received regarding this post, I decided to write a follow-up post featuring a Nike commercial that I think better exemplifies how to include disability in media. You can read it by clicking here: Old Nike Commercial Makes Eliminating Stigma of Disability Simple – “Just Do It!”