(Dis)abling Discourses: The “Supercrip” in Advertising

By Stacey Leavitt

Stacey recently completed her Master’s in the field of sport sociology at the University of Lethbridge. A former CIS hockey player, Stacey’s interest in disability sport stems from her involvement in planning recreational programming for children and youth with disabilities. Stacey looks forward to hearing your thoughts on her post and continuing the discussion – don’t hesitate to post comments and questions!

Paralympic media coverage has long been a controversial topic for both the games and athletes themselves. Even with the recent move of coverage to online spaces, the increasing incorporation of social media and an increase in coverage of the games by Channel 4 in London 2012, there still seems to be a lack of sponsorship of Paralympic athletes these days (see the struggles of Summer Mortimer here).  And yet, there are a few television ads out there featuring Paralympians, a theme that is growing throughout a variety of types of companies from sporting goods to insurance. So the question for me became, with minimal televised coverage of the games, where are these ads being shown and who is watching them? These questions served to inform a portion of my master’s work, which investigated the narratives circulating with regularity within television ads produced by companies like Nike and Visa, among others; and what I discovered still has me thinking, even after the thesis has been completed.

First, I’ll start with some background info on my thesis. My project looked at four ads released in and around the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Three commercials were produced by Nike and one by Visa. The advertisements featured Oscar Pistorius, Rohan Murphy, Cheri Blauwet and Matt Scott. What I found was (not surprisingly) all of the athletes were ensconced within the “supercrip” narrative. The “supercrip” is defined as “the presentation of a person, affected by a disability or illness (often in the prime of life), as ‘overcoming’ to succeed as a meaningful member of society and to live a ‘normal’ life” (Smart, 2001 as cited within Hardin & Hardin (2004)). On the upside, the “supercrip” does provide a significant challenge to traditional notions and stereotypes of disabled people as tragic, dependent, inactive and anonymous. It offers an alternative, one that views people with disabilities as active, capable, independent and identifiable.

So, you ask, what is the problem here? Para-athletes are getting the exposure they want right? Not necessarily.

First of all, not all Paralympians make the estimated $1 million dollars a year in endorsements that Pistorius does — many far from it.  Second, we can see through the ads above that only a certain type of athlete is considered a good investment or marketable for companies (a quick search of YouTube can confirm this). But conversely, we cannot entirely let athletes themselves off the hook — they are more than merely passive recipients and transmitters of these narratives — but we cannot deny them the chance to support their athletic endeavors either, and sponsorship is a key aspect of being able to compete for many. Ahh, the politics of representation…

When we look a little closer at the “supercrip” this purportedly positive representation becomes in fact quite problematic in that (most importantly for me) it continues to circulate the discourse of negativity surrounding disability; precisely through the language it uses to appear “positive” (for a great blog on language use click here). It reinforces low societal expectations for people with disabilities and, even worse, it sets the standard that all people with disabilities should be able to attain similar feat as that of the disabled hero; failing to acknowledge the diverse ways that disability is experienced. Moreover, it risks further “othering” people with disabilities through the process of singling them out because of their disabilities (Smith, 2012).

This is compounded by the mediated and homogenous image of disability that the media presents to us in predominately portraying “disability” as amputees and wheelchair users almost exclusively (one which in my opinion serves to gloss over the issues faced by the disability rights movement and which creates an illusion of inclusion).  Further, it risks reducing the successes of these athletes and every day people to one of attitude (for a great blog on this click here). It creates the problem of presenting the image that all people with disabilities can emulate the Pistorius’s of the world “if only they would try hard enough.” This implies that “if they (Paralympians) can do it, why can’t you?” This circulates a narrative of blame for individuals who require assistance or who have vastly different circumstances than those of the Paralympians we are exposed to in the media.

But this isn’t the only troublesome part about the advertisements. We begin to see more issues when we question, who they are made for (marketed at) and what larger societal discourses they are incorporating?

Let’s look at the Matt Scott “No Excuses” advert a little closer here, as it might be a prime example of what we’re discussing here.

The commercial featuring Scott is a full one-minute, with Scott shown from the chest up until the last eight seconds of the ad. While aggressively dribbling two basketballs simultaneously, Scott proceeds to give the viewer 56 excuses that are often given for not working out or being active. These are things such as “I’ve got a case of the Mondays”, “it’s too cold”, “I’m too fat” and “my favorite show is on”. For the final excuse (#56) the camera pans to a full body shot of Scott in his wheelchair, who then slams the two balls on the floor and ironically throws out the final excuse of “and my feet hurt”. As he wheels away, the familiar “Just Do It” flashes on the screen.

It is critical to note before going any further that the vast majority of Nike consumers are able bodied and Nike has just begun to produce athletic gear for “disabled” athletes (such as the Nike Sole in partnership with Ossur). Thus, it appears that Paralympians have been co-opted not only for their access to the disability market, but to inspire the already captured able-bodied market. Charles A. Riley (2006) asserts that many consumers are more likely to patronize companies or stores that utilize people with disabilities within their advertising. So the question again arises, who are these ads for? Companies and profit? Able-bodied fitness enthusiasts? Para-athletes?

So, back to the advert, there appears there are a few things happening here. First, we have the celebration of the disabled athlete for simply “showing up” in spite of it all, rather than his amazing achievements in the realm of wheelchair basketball. This is done through the presentation of Scott, and others with disabilities as having perhaps the best “excuse” for not participating, yet they have “overcome” this to be the best in their sport. Nike has found the epitome of the “Just Do It” slogan, perhaps in the people who have every reason not to. Second, the commercial elicits guilt from both the able-bodied and disabled viewers. Let us remember though, that majority of Nike’s consumer demographic is able-bodied at this time, so the way I read the commercial is that the company is “using” Para-atheletes as inspiration for a predominately able-bodied sport/fitness demographic. The viewer whether he/she is able bodied or otherwise should want to become active after experiencing this guilt. And of course, the first step to participation is great gear so purchase Nike! Lastly, the “No Excuses” advertisement ties in nicely to the rhetoric of neoliberalism. Nike does this by reiterating the belief that there is in fact no excuse for failure. Within the neoliberal paradigm, failure or an unwillingness to be the best is attributed to the problem of the individual — and a reduction in social services further this individualism. This narrative of blame aligns itself nicely with the negative ethos surrounding disability, as disability under the medical model is the problem of the individual, an abject identity and a problem to be managed/overcome/cured.

So what is the point of studying how Paralympic athletes are represented in advertising and media? Good question. As Douglas Kellner (2001) tells us, media culture shapes our values, perceptions of race, class, gender, ability and sexuality; it shapes our identities and our perceived places in the social world. Following this notion, media also tells us about ability/disability, and consequently things like Parasport, and Paralympic athletes. Thus, it is important to examine and critique these narratives.

Much like my thesis work left me with several questions, I’d like to leave you (the reader) with a few as well. What might a “progressive” advertisement featuring a Paralympian look like? What might be done to create promotional adverts that celebrate athleticism of Para-athletes that doesn’t have a “disability first” ethos of the “supercrip” narrative? How do we begin to create more sponsorship opportunities for Para-athletes, which might in turn give role models to young athletes and encourage grassroots participation? Most importantly, I wanted to share a bit of my research with Athletes First readers to hear what you think of advertisements featuring Paralympians; are these ads as problematic as they come across or do others have/see alternate readings of them? I am very interested to hear your thoughts!

4 thoughts on “(Dis)abling Discourses: The “Supercrip” in Advertising

  1. I disagree with the arguments presented in this for a number of reasons. First, obviously the motivation behind any Nike advertisement is to get people to buy their product. If you’re looking to corporations to pave the way to social justice, you will be continually disappointed. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with using Scott in order to motivate able bodied individuals. It’s true the commercial does focus on the fact that he shows up as opposed to his athletic achievements, however from a marketing stand point this makes perfect sense. If they focused on his accomplishments this would not resonate with the average viewer who would be left thinking, that’s impressive but I’ll never be a world class athlete. This way the viewer leaves thinking that they too can get active. It IS more challenging for disabled individuals to participate and be active so it IS more significant when they ‘show up’. It isn’t demeaning to a disabled person to recognize the achievement in just participating because everyone would understand someone who has no use of their legs chose to forgo sports. It is even more impressive still that they can become a world class athlete.

    As for the first part of this article, yes, corporations prefer specific types of disabilities when choosing athletes. I imagine it is important to them that their disability is highly visible as it is with amputees and those who are wheelchair bound. This isn’t discrimination or prejudice or glamourizing amputees. It is simply an issue of the effectiveness of advertisements. I also don’t think that it is demonstrative of any social narrative, it is as simple as we have 30-50 seconds to get out point across and the can’t spend 20 of those seconds explaining to the viewer what this person’s disability is.

    With regards to making other disabled individuals feel ostracized by othering them, maybe this is true in theory. In practice however, I personally don’t think that an individual would think that because they cannot be the best in the world at a sport they somehow don’t belong. When I see an able bodied athlete on TV, say Paul Hamm – the all around gymnastics champion from 2004 I do not feel othered because at 6’4 I will never be an Olympic champion gymnast. We aren’t all the same and everybody understands that. I also don’t think they would feel that if that can do whatever the paralympian on TV is doing that they’re a failure. More likely it would motivate them to participate in any capacity possible. I think that people have thicker skins than articles to suggest, and these ads really aren’t doing anything in terms of damaging the self worth of the viewers.

    Very interesting discussion though. Excellent read.

  2. The biggest flaw in the logic here is, as James has suggested, a profound assumption about why Nike makes ads at all. Nike is not the least bit interested in anything except making sales. I am just guessing, but I expect the VAST majority of Nike sales do not go to athletes of any significance, but rather to “wannabe” athletes who like to boost self esteem and assuage their “guilt” by wearing the stuff that Nike has convinced them (by paying elite athletes to wear their stuff) the real athletes use. It must be the shoes.

    Using unrealistic models as “role” models is hardly new, and is hardly limited to athletic wear. Unrealistic models are damaging to everyone’s self image, so thinking that somehow using a disabled athlete as a model is more harmful to the group he unrealistically represents is to ignore the ubiquitous social problems that result from advertising, elite sport, and the idolization of elite athletes of all kinds.

    Nothing in this thesis is unique to para-athletes. Elite sport IS about marketing at every level from the building of facilities, to TV revenue, to the selling of socks. All the (accurately described) negative consequences for people with disabilities outlined here are exactly the same negative consequences of the same marketing strategies directed at able bodied people. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not any specific ad uses an able bodied model or someone with some sort of disability or illness; the problem has to do with turning sport into a marketing tool, manipulating people to instill guilt and insecurity, and then selling stuff to fix it.

  3. Hmmmm Its Not just how the world sees us/ its how we see ourselves….. We are bombarded by the media & advertisers….. 4 hours a day is the average time we spend in front of the TV…. + Radio/ Bill Boards/ the list is endless as its everywhere. These people set the rules for our lives more than we can imagine or are willing to believe….

    We are led to believe that society owes us something…. that we need what they are offering…. that somehow we are less than able to do without it.

    I have posted a link to a great comedy sketch “The Adventures of Handi-Man Part 2: Handi Man’s Evil Twin” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25_U7k9JxZI

    Now I realize that it is not sport related & yes I did have a good laugh because if I can not laugh; well what do I have….. seriousness ? I’m going to tell you a story of why this skit is relevant.

    I was skiing last day on top of the mountain ~ & this young man started talking to me/ he was 9…. Any way he says “Wow that must be such hard work” & his coach was giving him a hard time about slowing down to talk to me….. I replied “yes; how long have you been skiing for?” he said ” since I was 2″, “well thats 7 more years more than I’ve been skiing; just wait when I’ve been skiing for 7 years I’m going to as fast as you are now!” He look look at me with a yep & took off….. on his next lap he caught up to me again…. & he says you know your doing pretty good for your first year.” I hand a good laugh; cause his couch was giving him a hard time for talking to me & he told him to “just relax can’t you see I’m talking.”

    My point is that More often than not we are falsely depicted by the media & advertisers….. people often don’t see us as equals…. or see us beyond the false barriers that are put in front of us; when somehow we go beyond / or should I say far beyond everybody else’s expectations of ourselves ( like many Para Athletes are able to do). We are put up on a pedestal…. & over criticized for the actioned we take….

    Yes I do believe the statement is correct that advertisers really don’t give a dame about us/ who we are & what we have achieved/ gone through to get were we are now…. the sacrifices made.

    All these thing have a multiplication factor because we have so many other concerns & needs that the average person is just unable to comprehend…..” Its not just a matter of doing it!” its also being able to maintain a physical & mental wellness that will give us the opportunity to successfully full fill our lives & achieve the goals we are setting for ourselves…..

  4. It’s hard to add much to the critique provided by James A – which I agree with almost entirely.

    I think that often academics are guilty of WAAAAAY overthinking things… and this, to me, seems to be another case of it.

    I am an amputee, an athlete, and a coach. In each of those roles, one of the main determinants of success is “showing up”. When I became an amputee unexpectedly at the age of 21 I could have shrunk away from the world, and definitely from the world of sport, but eventually, after some recovery, nervously, I SHOWED UP and started trying to get back into life and sport.

    As an athlete, training is grueling, it’s an endurance sport requiring daily sacrifice over many years, and it’s not at all surprising that the majority of the population watching TV on the couch don’t SHOW UP for activity at all, let alone training – and consequently we have an obesity epidemic.

    As a coach I hear those types of excuses every day from people – excuses to not SHOW UP.

    Showing up is the one variable we all have control over. I can’t make myself run like Usain Bolt or Oscar Pistorius but I have the power within to be able to show up and work hard like they do. For a company to tap into that makes A LOT more sense than going on about specific skills and talents that only 1% of the population have. That would be quite “othering”.

    I love these ads and think that they do good things for disabled athletes and disabled populations in general. I think they are also great for the general public who often needs a “kick in the ass” when it comes to SHOWING UP.

    As an aside – and a reply to other commenters – I have no problem with companies who’s goal is to get people active and thereby sell product. As a species we need to be more active… Big companies like Nike and elite sport forums like the Olympics and pro leagues are not evil the way some would have us believe. These are some of the biggest influencers in getting children active at a young age – let’s not forget that.

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