Recently Fisher-Price, Target, and other popular retailers started featuring young people with Down syndrome in their advertisements. At first blush, it is exciting that the disability community is receiving attention. But as I gave this more thought, it made me wonder. For advertisers, people affected by Down syndrome are not a large constituency — only about 6,000 babies with the condition are born in the United States each year. Obviously, this is not their target market.
According to a New York Times article by Jeanne Bonner, In Toy Ads and on the Cat Walk, Models with Down Syndrome, published November 23, 2016, “advertisers say that using models with Down syndrome or a physical disability allows them to communicate their values and connect with customers, particularly millennials, who respond to inclusiveness and are looking for ‘authenticity’ in advertising.”
Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, saw through this immediately and commented, “It tells you something that the word authenticity is itself put in quotation marks. Here’s the great problem with this ad: there is nothing but good news in the fact that the ad and the newspaper articles are giving attention to the humanity of those with Down syndrome. That is, by any measure, a good thing. The problem is the context, and the context tells us that there is something less than an actual commitment to the full humanity and dignity of those with Down syndrome on the part of those who are looking for, the word was ‘authenticity in advertising’.”
Fisher-price has obviously drawn some sort of relationship between the beauty of a child with Down syndrome playing with a toy and the sale of that toy. However, they do so without ever recognizing the true beauty of every single human being, including those with Down syndrome, simply because they are made in the image of God.
This takes us to a major point of disconnection. If advertisers like Fisher-Price and Target are truly trying to “communicate their values and connect with customers, particularly millennials, who respond to inclusiveness and are looking for authenticity in advertising,” shouldn’t they also be concerned that the clear majority of unborn children diagnosed as likely being affected by Down syndrome (among other disabilities) are now being aborted?
Otherwise, what kind of inclusiveness are they looking for? That doesn’t sound like authenticity, does it? Unfortunately, it sounds more like the objectification of a person affected by disability, or at best a manipulative desire to simply sell more toys.
Because all people are made in the image of God, we should believe the best about advertisers and their intentions. But as conscientious consumers, it would be very helpful for retailers to tell us where they really stand on these issues. If they do not feel comfortable doing so, perhaps they should consider using a puppy in their next commercial to draw an emotional response from buyers.
Marc Stein currently serves as Vice President of Field Services for the Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, CA. His oversight responsibilities include church relations, volunteers and other kinetic ministry programs. He is cofounder and chief architect for the Irresistible Church, as well as occasional writer about innovation and leadership.