Tuesday, 1 November 2016
Do you remember the special adverts that were commissioned as part of Channel 4's coverage of the Rio Paralympics? There was an all-signed ad-break during The Last Leg, but there was also a notable series of Maltesers adverts. Here's a bit from the press release:
"Mars Chocolate UK will launch a new series of adverts for the MALTESERS® brand that champion diversity and disability. They will be broadcast for the first time on Channel 4 during the 2016 Paralympics Games Opening Ceremony tomorrow evening (7th September).
The new ads, created by Mars Chocolate and AMV, are the latest in the MALTESERS® ‘Look on the Light Side’ series and were developed in response to Channel 4’s Superhumans Wanted competition. Mars Chocolate UK and creative agency AMV won £1million of the broadcaster’s commercial airtime for developing a bold, creative idea which puts disability and diversity at the heart of their campaign.
The series comprises three ad creatives, all inspired by real-life stories from disabled people, celebrating universally awkward situations; from embarrassing moments with new boyfriends to behaving badly at a wedding – where the best thing to do is simply look on the light side of life."
I loved them. "New Boyfriend" in particular had me double-taking and then laughing out loud because it was so funny and... well, because it was so filthy. Watch it for yourself. I thought they were great because they seemed to be doing something that we don't see on television all that often: people with disabilities being shown as normal people who talk about normal things and, instead of having people treating them like they're made of porcelain, we seem them making jokes about themselves and their situation. American Dad has been doing this for decades, of course, but it seems somehow revolutionary to see it on an ad break on Channel 4... even when these adverts are sandwiching the incredible sporting achievements of the superhumans.
Anyway, a couple of months later, the Guardian has put up a comment piece on these adverts. They're not a fan, at least not unreservedly:
"First, without restraint, a big cheer for the actors. Disabled actors – they exist after all. And are doing a great job here. Three all at once in an ad campaign, coming along just like buses. Out in the shiny mainstream world, Metro positively drools and declares the ad has been “widely lauded”, and quotes a viewer from Twitter: “Best Maltesers advert ever!!”. On the Maltesers YouTube page, the comments range from hilarious, to worried, to downright weird – perhaps presenting a grim equality of sorts.
"It’s bound to get messy. It’s about selling a chocolate product after all – and is it really worth some of us feeling unhappy? It does grate on me given that the advertising industry is part of the capitalist agenda. And sadly, featuring a few disabled actors in an advert isn’t really likely to be a major skirmish in its downfall. Nor is it likely to explode barriers and negative attitudes. Or is it?
"Lisa Hammond, who plays Donna Yates in EastEnders, said: “All of the actors in the ads are great … that they are all women makes me happy. The issue is the fact that every one of the adverts’ focus is impairment, as part of the story. We’ve been banging on about this for years – feels like we are in a perpetual loop! And I’m interested in the deeper story.”
"I know what she means. I’m always interested in a deeper story. But this has parallels with the way that race is always the issue in the representation of BAME people on screen. But I don’t want to be forever a bloody issue – only an issue – even if it’s just an advert."
I'm not disabled - or, at least, I don't consider myself to be disabled - so perhaps I'm not attuned enough to see the problem with these adverts. I find it very easy to believe that, if this is your life, then your radar is probably a lot more sensitive to these sorts of nuances (...goodness knows I'm sensitive enough to *any* passing mention of MS in the media or on the telly). To be honest though, these are adverts, and what advert ever made managed - or even tried - to create a rounded picture of someone and their life? I'm inclined to think that the very fact we're having this sort of conversation about these adverts shows how far we've come... we're talking about the sex life of someone in a wheelchair, for goodness sake! (hats off to the advertising agency for getting such an obvious reference to ejaculation into an advert, by the way. I can't think that I've ever seen something like that in an advert before, able-bodied or otherwise).
We've doubtless got a long way still to go, but we certainly don't lock disabled people away any more because they're not fit to be seen in decent company. Not in this country anyway. Not at the moment, anyway. Who knows what will happen after brexit.
As the great Ian Dury sang:
Hello to you out there in Normal Land
You may not comprehend my tale or understand
As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks
You can be my body but you'll never read my books
They played Spasticus Autisticus at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, actually. It still makes people gloriously uncomfortable, and there's power in that.