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

By Stacey LeavittStacey 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!