Wrong to generalize Super Bowl ads as “inspirational porn”

The commercials featured during this year’s Super Bowl were an obvious departure from what is traditionally touted during the big game. From the NFL’s Domestic Violence PSA to the even more chilling ad for Nationwide Insurance to Carnival’s ad featuring the John F. Kennedy monologue, there was a deep, if not sobering, theme that resonated with many of the commercials that aired Sunday.

Super Bowl 49 commercials also put a spotlight on disability. Microsoft, Toyota, and McDonalds all featured individuals with disabilities in their multimillion dollar ads. Paralympian Amy Purdy was front and center in Toyota’s Camry ad, Microsoft ran a profile of a young boy using prostheses, and McDonalds featured a third-grader with Down syndrome and her family in their “Nothing but lovin’” ad.

The representation of disability in the media during one of the biggest viewing nights of the year might be considered a big win in conquering stigma and marginalization, but the other side of that is the idea that ads like these only aim to sensationalize people with disabilities.

In an article written for the online news publication Salon.com, journalist Elizabeth Heideman is quick to point out the media’s tendency to sensationalize disability. She writes specifically about the idea of “inspiration porn” as it relates to the Super Bowl ads for Toyota and Microsoft. “Both commercials were meant to inspire and motivate viewers with Purdy and O’Neill’s stories, but for disability activists, that’s exactly what’s wrong with the ads,” Heideman writes.

While Heideman’s article brings up many valid points about exploiting individuals with disabilities, it is a difficult sell in connection to these particular ads. It is true that having a disability doesn’t automatically make someone an inspiration to others. But what if you are a professional athlete who happens to have a disability? Where do you make that distinction between exploitation and storytelling – or traditional athlete product endorsements? And is it possible that the individuals in these commercials were just faces; not the face of disability or some inspirational misrepresentation of disability?

To generalize that someone with a disability shouldn’t be looked at as remarkable or impressive doesn’t promote inclusion and full representation, either. It’s important that we are careful not to diminish the accomplishments of anyone—disability or no disability.

No doubt there is a fine line between exploitation and reporting, but the positive representation—or unremarkable depiction—of disability during this significant viewing event is an encouraging step toward the goal of full inclusion.