“Wheels” is a Canadian Tire ad that received 253 Million unpaid views and 4.1 million shares during the 2016 Paralympic Games. The spot begins when a bad rebound gets away from a group of boys who are playing a pickup game of basketball in a driveway. When one of the boys goes to chase after the ball, he encounters a disabled boy who is his age, sitting in a wheelchair on his front porch. They say ‘hey’ to each other. The neighborhood boy picks up the ball and runs back to his friends.
In the next scene, we find the disabled boy all alone in his dark home, when he glances out through a screen door to discover a basketball sitting on his sun lit porch. We then see the boy, basketball in tow, as he rolls toward the neighborhood boys in the driveway. Encountering them, he discovers they’re all playing basketball while seated atop various wheeled objects; a tricycle, an office chair, a wagon, a crate on top of a dolly, etc. The boy in the wheelchair smiles and joins the game. The voiceover declares “when the best of us steps up, our nation stands a little taller”.
The song that sets the tone for this ad is called Honey Jars written by John Appleby. These are three lines from the song:
I pick up a broken comb
Though I don’t have any plans tonight
I’m not going anywhere
These lyrics, coupled with the dark imagery from within the house exemplify the trope of disability as an isolating experience. It portrays disabled people as playing a passive role in our own lives. This advertisement depicts a disabled boy who is broken and without agency. He doesn’t leave his house until he’s invited, and the only word he speaks is in response to the other boy. His role in the narrative is to serve as a recipient of another person’s inspiring generosity.
Disability simulations (such as donning a blindfold to simulate blindness) are oftentimes referred to as empathy exercises. But an empirical research study from 2017 titled ‘Crip for a day: The unintended negative consequences of disability simulations’ found that ‘simulating disabilities promotes distress and fails to improve attitudes toward disabled people’. Through the process of acting, “Wheels” is now simulating children simulating disability. We anticipate if this process was studied, the outcome would be the same.
What may be most obvious to the viewer, though, is the voiceover “when the best of us steps up, our nation stands a little taller”. We simply want to remind you this is a wheelchair ad and we find a metaphor that uses terminology such as stepping up and standing to be incredibly misguided.
And so we ask Canadian Tire, what would have happened if the boy had invited the neighborhood kids in to his bright home?