Marketing Down Syndrome

Last week Maureen Wallace wrote an excellent article surveying, as she puts it, the “good, bad, and wacky” in “Marketing” Down Syndrome. You should all go read it.

I have, of course (for those who read me often), mixed feelings about the marketing of Down Syndrome. In general, I’m happy to see awareness, visibility, and inclusion. But tokenism annoys me. Take this image from Target, a few years old now.

I was thrilled to see the boy with Down Syndrome there. On the other hand, let’s count: African-American (light-skinned), Latino, White, Asian – and now Down Syndrome (and white). I’m glad DS has made the list of tokens to include, and I know it’s just an advertisement, but this ad doesn’t really mean anything on its own. But that doesn’t mean it lacks significance. Perhaps, just perhaps, such moments of token inclusion signify broader societal acceptance of people with disabilities.
Also the boy is really cute. But what about people with disabilities who aren’t so cute by normative standards?

Back to Wallace’s piece. She’s not looking at commercial marketing, but the use of marketing techniques to spread awareness and to, perhaps, re-shape societal attitudes towards Down Syndrome in such a way that increased inclusion will follow. She writes:

For organizations whose missions include the words, “advocate for individuals with Down syndrome,” their efforts to educate often live through targeted marketing campaigns intended to overcome stigmas and communicate the positives about a person with Down syndrome.

But when does that effort go too far? When does marketing become promotion of stereotypes? What if those efforts impart the illusion of a child or adult with superhuman, spiritual qualities?

This puts Wallace squarely in the world that I, often grumpily, inhabit – questioning overly positive language.

She moves through several variants: Kids with DS are special gifts from God (wouldn’t all kids equally be special gifts from God?) given only to special families. She talks about disability versus different abilities. She looks at the complex roles that national and local organizations play. Really, it’s a long and thorough article, and very balanced, and you should just read it. But here are three more comments:

This campaign I like a lot. For one, it’s not a cute toddler. Second, it just makes a simple, clear, declarative statement. She is a photographer. It’s the best kind of “people-first” language, rendering the diagnosis a distant component of a complex, interesting, three-dimensional person.

But Wallace herself has waded into these waters. Apparently, she encountered resistance over a campaign that showed children with tongue protrusion. She writes:

While we rarely notice our son Charlie’s tongue protrusion anymore, I’m aware that the characteristic stands out to others, and so I hesitated when I saw the video.

My husband noticed it, too. We ultimately agreed it’s authentic and that’s what the PSA was about — authenticity in how people with Down syndrome are a part of our lives.

Not everyone sees it that way, probably because the tongue protrusion is a visible difference, and the organization received some criticism for including those shots. The truth is that people with Down syndrome do tend to have visible differences, from slanted eyes to smaller ears.

Receiving flack for tongue protrusion worries me, but I’m glad to see Wallace and her husband emphasizing authenticity. The issue speaks back to my post from Tuesday on sweetness or cuteness porn. Many kids and adults with Down syndrome are cute. My son Nico is super cute. This morning, I found him reversed on his bed, head partially buried under the sheets, and he giggled when I came in and showed me his belly so I would tickle him. Cuteness overload! But cute can only open the door. Behind that door, are people who do not meet contemporary norms of cute or attractive. Learning to see past disability has to mean getting past cute.

Wallace’s article then shifts to one of the worst pieces on the “angel/retard spectrum” that I have seen.

I believe the author of this page, which was posted on a Facebook page for a book The Gifted Choice, which I have not read, means well. But this is the most egregious kind of “angel” writing I’ve seen. The chromosome is “divine.” It’s a glimpse into the divine. There’s no disability, just incredible abilities. It’s Down syndrome as “super-crip.”
So go read the piece and see the whole spectrum of “marketing” campaigns dissected. 

4 Replies to “Marketing Down Syndrome”

  1. Mark Leach says:

    Had not seen "The Divine Chromosome" or The Gifted Choice. My buddy Phil told me at the first Affiliates in Action conference that we will have achieved true inclusion when people with Down syndrome are not featured in ads or on t.v. shows because they have Down syndrome. Instead, it's when people with Down syndrome simply appear in the background, as an extra, the guy standing in line behind the TV or Movie star waiting to get coffee in a scene, with no speaking role. Just present, presented as part of a typical scene out of real life. I long for the day.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Oh thank you… and for the links on reading about cuteness porn.
    It's also very much a relief to hear the stories from the point of view of disabled people themselves.

    And yeah, I think objectification isn't necessarily WHOLLY bad in bits… Like obviously I think my spouse is attractive! But that attractiveness is not the whole of my relationship with my spouse – that being the key point.

    I mean everybody pretty much loves cute. But it does rub me the wrong way when like babies are overly objectified, for example.
    It's one thing to be someone, (like me) watches Youtubes of Shiro the Basket Cat constantly because they're cute. But it would be a little creepy, I think, to be watching strangers' children that way.
    Does that make sense?
    I'm not saying I don't watch any cute or funny baby Youtubes of strangers ever. Because I do occasionally come across something that's cute or funny with a baby in it, and may enjoy it.

    But there's a degree of that where i think it would make most people uncomfortable because it turns into pure objectiveness and kind of unnatural almost.

    I know that back in the mid-1990s, my friend introduced me to a band The Frogs, that had a song called "Where's Jerry Lewis?" And I think a lot of people I made listen to it, kind of had this knee-jerk reaction of, OMG THIS IS OFFENSIVE.
    Yes, but that's what the song was about. It IS offensive.

    But it was an artistic commentary on the subtle offensiveness in the Jerry Lewis telethons… which quite frankly, I was somehow relieved that I wasn't the only one kind of freaked out all those years of my childhood, about that, for reasons I never could explain, and dared not mention!!!

    For years I wondered if I was just prejudiced and uncomfortable with handicapped people! Or that I was a monster who just found disabled kids offensive!!!

    Now I realize that no, I'm uncomfortable with the way that disabled people are presented to the public sometimes.
    I was justifiably uncomfortable with the spectacle aspect of it.
    On some gut-level I found it sad that this is the way it was being done, or worse, that this is the way it NEEDED to be done.

    Having worked in advertising as an adult, for a number of years – including in the automotive industry, which is well known for its extensive use of "T&A", I know that there's a reason they show cute kids in poor countries in advertisements for charity giving, etc.

    On the other hand, I think it's an honest & moral sentiment to think it's really too bad we can't, as a society, just be tolerant of, and helpful toward, people less fortunate in some way, without having to "advertise" their attractive qualities.
    They shouldn't have to be cute, divine, or otherwise attractive, for us to respect them.

    Also, if you spend any kind of time with a child, even if that child has something unusual or outside the ordinary about them, chances are you will find them cute after spending some time with them and liking them.
    I read a study awhile back that actually said that's a recognized phenomenon.
    Apparently there's something innate and inherited in the human brain that makes it so, and it's good that it is, because it's necessary! It makes us want to take extra care of cute kids – or rather kids we find cute. We don't want to take care of kids because they're cute… we see them as cute because we need to take care of them.

    Your son is cute. But he's definitely more than cute. He's a person! And he deserves tolerance and respect, not just from you, or me, but from society as a whole… not just some cooing & ahhing. And I think it's comforting to hear someone express those thoughts.

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