Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Troubling message in Italian ad for Down Syndrome Day

By Louise Kinross

Saatchi & Saatchi New York launched this ad yesterday for Italy's CoorDown, a national organization representing people with Down syndrome.  

The ad features American actress and model Olivia Wilde looking in the mirror while a woman narrates: "This is how I see myself. I see myself as a daughter, a sister and a best a person you can rely on." We see images of Olivia Wilde living her life, at work and play. "I see myself meeting someone that I can share my life with. I see myself as an ordinary person with an important, meaningful, beautiful life." The camera then pans to reveal the real narrator, a young woman with Down syndrome, who asks: "How do you see me?"

I suppose the objective is to make viewers question their judgments about this woman when they assume she's a conventionally beautiful actress, then compare them with their reaction when they realize she's a woman with Down syndrome.

We know from a 2012 French study that adults who say they accept children with Down Syndrome show, at an unconscious level, a negative bias when shown photos of a child with Down syndrome as opposed to a typical child. These negative stereotypes "are the result of social attitudes and values carried by our cultural environment," said lead investigator Claire Enea-Drapeau. "As long as we don't know about them...we are trapped in automatic attitudes or associations. But when you are aware of it, then you can start to struggle."

I suppose the Saatchi & Saatchi ad may wake viewers up to the negative stereotypes they hold when the young woman with Down syndrome is revealed. But then what? How does it challenge those stereotypes? How does it make the viewer think differently about beauty?

And why is a young woman with Down syndrome being compared to a conventionally beautiful actress and model in the first place? Would any of us want our daughters, or any other young woman, to be measured against a Hollywood beauty? 

The young woman in this ad will continue to face the world with features that don't meet Western standards of beauty, and, which we know through the French study, generate automatic stigma.

As a contrast to this ad, I much prefer this one: "Because who is perfect? Get closer." To honour International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2014, shop windows in Zurich displayed mannequins with the shapes, curves and height of real people with amputations, short stature and a curved spine (see photo below). Meticulous measurements were taken and drawings made of each model's body and limbs, so that exact replicas could be produced. This campaign communicates the value of real bodies, real people.

Unfortunately, the young woman with Down syndrome in the Saatchi & Saatchi ad is not even named in the AdWeek article. According to a director from Saatchi & Saatchi: "This year we're thrilled to work with world-class artists including director Reed Morano and actress Olivia Wilde."

Wouldn't respect start with including the young woman with Down syndrome in the actual story? Naming her? After all, it's her story, right? Not Olivia Wilde's.

This reader comment on the Youtube video sums up the discomfort I feel watching this ad: "Disabled people shouldn't have to imagine they do not look disabled to be beautiful...Disabled people are beautiful exactly as they are...this is erasure and violence to disabled women."

It sickens me to imagine what on earth the young woman with Down syndrome took away from this experience. How is this ad going to help that woman feel comfortable in her own skin, let alone other people with Down syndrome who watch it?

The ad is being launched for World Down Syndrome Day March 21.


Thanks for your perspective, Louise! My son has Down syndrome and when I first saw the ad I thought it was very powerful in that it challenged superficial stereotypes and showed that people with disabilities want all the same things everyone else does - a job, a happy home life, someone to share it with. And from the narrator's perspective, she sees herself as beautiful and invites the viewer to confront their, perhaps unconscious, stereotypes and see that she is indeed beautiful. The fact that they don't name the actress or credit her is disturbing though and kind of ruins the whole thing for me.

I am the parent of a child with DS and I really don't agree with your view about this. I found the ad very powerful actually. The whole point of the ad is to convey the impact of other people's judgement on the person with DS. I don't think its about specific standards of beauty as such, more about getting people to think that they need to look beyond what is on the outside and get to know that person. Anything that encourages people to do this is great in my book.

I think the INTENT of the ad is spot on as it makes us question our own values and beliefs. However, I do NOT agree with using someone else to protray the actual individual.

Thanks for all of your thoughts/opinions.

I agree with Anonymous #2 -- the intent to completely upend the way we think about things is excellent. I just don't like the suggestion that this young woman sees herself as someone other than who she is. I want ads that affirm the beauty of everyone -- not because they "do" the same things as other people -- but because they are human and inherently valuable.

I came across your post right after I have viewed the video and you made me think - but after looking at both I have to say I understand but disagree with your post. What I took away from the video is not the idea of beauty but the deeper idea of sense of self and ability. The videos didn't focus on what the young girl looked like rather who she is, what she can do and where she wants to go with her life. I think the ad was asking us to look beyond the external/surface and see the person that lies beneath it. I do wish that they had mentioned who she was in the media outreach.

I don't think anyone is comparing the young woman with Down syndrome to the actress. This video is not about comparisons, it is about perceptions. The message -- I don't see myself as limited, do you?" -- is loud and clear. I loved this. I do think your point, that the young woman with Down syndrome, goes unnamed in the press / acknowledgements, etc. -- is an excellent one. That is absolutely ridiculous -- clearly she is the star.

I've been mulling this over for a couple of days, and I have come to the conclusion that this campaign makes me very uncomfortable as a sibling to someone with disabilities. It has something to do with this beautiful young woman with DS seeing herself as Olivia Wilde instead of who she is: a lovely and proud woman with DS. I understand this is meant to challenge people who don't have an intimacy with disability, but it misses the mark.

I keep coming back to this tried and true check for ableism or privilege: imagine another person from a different minority group staring into a mirror and seeing a typically beautiful (by Hollywood standards, therefore white, cis and stunning) person looking back and saying "this is how I see myself." Oh my Gosh!!! None of us -- not any one of us -- should look in the mirror and want to see anyone other than our awesome selves looking back.

Ultimately, this campaign makes me think that the young woman with DS has internalized some shame and dissatisfaction with being truly who she is (via rampant societal ableism). And that makes me sad.

We are constantly and consistently bombarded with an Olivia Wilde type in relation to those empowering words narrated by AnnaRose. But what if we instead had those words linked to the strong and beautiful AnnaRose herself?

The fact that we are given such a brief glimpse of AnnaRose and that she is set in a bleak / dark room staring at her own reflection speaks to me of feelings of "less than" instead of vibrant and alive.

When she says she sees herself as Olivia Wilde (looking as and doing all an Olivia-person might), my heart breaks. I don't want her to see herself that way because that means she equates all things good and beautiful with Olivia. We aren't given the opportunity to equate her authentic narrative with a person who has DS or a person who uses a wheelchair or whatever because Hollywood and Saatchi believe we only think in terms of "conventional" beauty (again: non-disabled, white, cis, stunning).

I think we're smarter, more inclusive, more compassionate, more aware than they are giving us credit for. And they are only exacerbating the stereotype with this campaign.

AnnaRose asks us, How do you see me? And I want to say that I see her as a beautiful, vibrant, articulate college student (that she is). Not as anyone else but who she is. And that's enough, it's good enough, it's perfectly who she is! Plenty wonderful. I wish they'd portrayed AnnaRose in all the scenes Olivia played and had Olivia at the end staring at her image. Or better yet, no Olivia.

Also (and sorry for waxing on) sar2126 mentions that AnnaRose doesn't see herself as limited and therefore sees an Olivia-type person in the mirror. But the fact is, there are plenty of invisible limitations (mental illness, brain damage, illness and disease ..) Our perceptions are always surface only. Always. This campaign serves to tell us not to judge a book by its cover, but it doesn't reveal to us the amazing story that is AnnaRose. It's time for that story to be in front of the cameras!

Spot on with both your comments, Christina. Thank you.

The concerns expressed in this article were considered when the storyboard for this video was proposed, and indeed some modifications were made. However I think you've missed the point - my daughter doesn't see herself as a person with Down syndrome, nor does she see herself as Olivia, she does see herself as a person and she has dreams and goals little different to her peers at school etc. However, she is often seen by others as someone with a disability and is subject to their low expectations, lack of understanding and ability to appreciate what she can (and does) achieve - until they get to know her, even a little bit, and realise that she is a person first. I do agree that it is disappointing that Anna's involvement has not been celebrated appropriately, although perhaps you should also read

Thank you Lin for leaving your comment about the evolution of this ad. I do appreciate what you are saying about your daughter wanting to be seen as a person first. Your daughter is obviously a very capable person. Some people with disability are not able to achieve in conventional ways in the way your daughter has. I'd like us to create a culture where all people, regardless of ability or degree of disability, are valued simply because they are human. I do understand the shock value of the ad. I'd just rather the ad had depicted your daughter's life in all of its beauty. Thank you so much for stopping by! And I enjoyed reading the Self piece because of its focus on your daughter.

If you want to understand how ridiculous this ad is, picture yourself in AnnaRose's position- imagine the ad was voiced about you, and about your life, but using a glamorous Hollywood actor of similar demographic to you.

Imagine speaking over images of them living your life and then the camera panning to you sitting there saying "After seeing this actor playing my life, how do you perceive me?"

It is silly and makes no sense.

People might say "But it makes sense if the person who is voicing the ad is disabled"
But why do you think that? Why do you think that makes it any weirder than if it was an able bodied person? It is just a strange, pointless idea.