Advertising / Disability / TV

Guinness Wheelchair Basketball Ad: Inspiring or Patronizing?

guy pushing himself up from the ground while in a wheelchair

This Guinness commercial has been making the rounds on the internet as of late. It starts out with a group of guys in wheelchairs playing basketball together. It ends with them all out at a bar, celebrating their game over some Guinness, as the voice over states “the choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.” There’s a plot twist right in the middle which you should take a minute to watch if you haven’t seen it already.

Did you think it was heartwarming? Touching? Maybe inspiring? Well, I didn’t.

I use a wheelchair—not all the time, mind you, but my chronic pain from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare and invisible disability, often makes it impossible for me to stand or walk. And as a wheelchair user, I have some thoughts on this commercial.

The way I see it, there are two ways to draw attention to people with disabilities (PWD): you can turn them into trinkets and infantilize them by making others either feel sorry for them or feel “inspired” by them, or you can point out ableism in the media and in our everyday lives and challenge people to change the way they think and act. I think this commercial started out by wanting to do the latter, but wound up doing mainly the former.  I’m sure the creators wanted to inspire viewers to treat PWD like people, but are actually just inspiring them to treat us like service projects. Yes, I recognize that the end goal was to sell beer, but it’s still a shame that Guinness wasted an opportunity to point out a serious problem that does not get enough attention.

Think about it this way: what if the token “different” person in this commercial wasn’t in a wheelchair, but instead was black, or gay, or a woman. Would it be okay if everyone else was wearing blackface (or worse—insert your own terrible examples) to make their friend feel “included”? Of course not. I know this isn’t a perfect parallel because, physically, basketball would be the same regardless of face paint or whatever, but I think it gets my point across. Believe it or not, a few hours in a wheelchair doesn’t even get close to showing all the shit PWD go through every day. I’m wary of people thinking that they can understand my perspective after such a short time in my wheels. And I really don’t like the idea that your “character” is determined by hanging out with people who are different from you, solely because they are different from you. It’s one thing to have disabled/black/gay friends, but that shouldn’t be because they are disabled/black/gay and fill some kind of check box.

Now, before you all jump down my throat and post comments about how this is not your interpretation and how some of your best friends are guys in wheelchairs, let me say that I know that not everyone on the internet who sees this commercial will have exactly these takeaways. I get that. However, as I said earlier, none of the important points were made clear. At no point does the commercial turn to the viewer and say, “hey, hang out with your friends and do stuff together. That’s cool character. That’s it.” Instead, they basically said, “what these guys are doing shows good character” without specifying that what these guys were doing was hanging out as buddies—not doing community service for a dude in a wheelchair.

The majority of viewers will not understand that this should be about inclusion and equality. I know this is true not only by dealing with ableism every day of my life, but also by seeing the overwhelming number of responses to the ad that talk about how “inspiring” it all is.

Maybe this commercial is raising awareness, but at what cost? In my view, the ad did not show the average beer-consumer that PWD are people too. It showed that we are trinkets that can give you Good Karma points if you hang out with us. It’s akin to making us a community service project and it makes me incredibly uncomfortable.


2 thoughts on “Guinness Wheelchair Basketball Ad: Inspiring or Patronizing?

  1. Hey Chloi – GREAT question. I also enjoyed the Cheerios commercial because I too am in a mixed-race relationship.

    That being said, I think you kind of answered your own question. What would make a well-done commercial with PWD? Well, imagine any commercial today — one that mostly features able-bodied white men. Now imagine that you replace some of those tropes with some minority individuals: a black man, a Hasidic Jew, a woman in a wheelchair, etc. A commercial done well will feature minorities like this WITHOUT intentionally drawing attention to what it is that makes them different. That Cheerios commercial resonated well with us because there was no overt statement being made about the mixed-race aspect. The white woman was not praised for having a child or relationship with a black man. They were just a normal couple having breakfast with their daughter.

    It would be simple for a commercial to do it right: just treat PWDs like any other character in the commercial. By putting able-bodied men into wheelchairs, it drew attention and made the whole commercial a “feel good” fest, rather than footage of a group of friends – some disabled, some not – hanging out together as any other group might.

  2. Pingback: Guinness, ‘made of more’ or just more of the same? | Masculinities 101

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