Degree recently announced the launch of a new product, Degree Inclusive, with a pair of spots featuring disabled athletes. Billed as “the world’s first adaptive deodorant built with a diverse disability community,” Degree Inclusive consists of specialized roll-on packaging with features targeted to users “with limited grip or sight.” The ads for the prototype feature Maria, “the blind skater whose passion for the rink won’t be held back by limits” and Nick, “the boxer who battles in and out of the ring against being told what he can and can’t do.” Our analysis will focus on the ad featuring Maria. Before we hit play on the videos, their Youtube summaries let us know that we are about to be inspired by a narrative of overcoming and corporate saviorism.
The ad introduces us to Maria as she skates swiftly and assuredly through an empty indoor roller rink. An electronic pulse accompanies the sound of her skate wheels scraping the floor. Maria begins to speak confidently:
“The rink is my passion, my arena of possibilities.”
The end of her sentence is punctuated by a bass drop, as the camera cuts to a closeup shot of Maria’s torso in street clothes as she holds her white cane in front of her, overlaid with the Degree logo and the title of the spot, “Maria’s Confidence to Move.” As the camera zooms out, we see that Maria is walking outside a building on an isolated stretch of sidewalk made of alternating paving slabs and bricks. In contrast with her grace and power in the rink, Maria moves hesitantly here, pausing as she feels the changing textures of the ground with her cane. The camera then returns to the rink, cutting between closeups of Maria’s face and skate-clad feet, and wide, panning shots that emphasize the speed and fluency of her movement. Maria speaks again:
“It’s where the fear of speed can’t slow me down. Where I can be free.”
By juxtaposing Maria’s movements inside and outside the rink, and through this line of copy, the ad is telling viewers two things: that her “confidence to move” comes from the rink and that movement is freedom.
These themes play into a number of tropes of disability representation, while neglecting a number of realities of disabled experience. Mainstream representations of disability frequently emphasize movement in an attempt to destigmatize disability; however, disabled people have pointed out that this trope further marginalizes the many disabled people who do move slowly, unsteadily, atypically, or minimally. By emphasizing Maria’s caution outdoors with her cane, the ad perhaps references the social model of disability, which states that disability is imposed by society, often through environmental and architectural barriers. This message is muddled, however, by the ad’s focus on her cane as a visual signifier of restricted movement. For the audience, the cane is linked with Maria’s fear and lack of freedom—the opposite of how many disabled people describe their own relationships to their assistive devices.
The ad also portrays Maria moving through spaces where she is entirely alone, a pattern we have noticed in ads featuring female adaptive athletes. The cool-colored lighting highlights the sense of emptiness and isolation experienced by the viewer. By contrast, Degree’s spot featuring Nick the boxer, is warmly lit and shows him surrounded by other people both in the gym and the world outside. This is a curious choice, since for most non-cis men, moving alone through an isolated public space brings an immediate sense of unease. For disabled people of marginalized genders, this unease is heightened by the normalization of strangers invading our personal space or even assaulting us, under the guise of “helping.” By linking an assistive device to restricted movement and lack of confidence, while framing empty public spaces as neutral, Degree reveals its own abled gaze.
As we continue to follow Maria’s movement through the rink, we watch her fall three times, from multiple camera angles. The thud of her body and clatter of her skates hitting the floor are the loudest points in the ad’s soundtrack. She is visibly sweating as she repeatedly gets back up to continue skating. Maria narrates:
“Free from the feeling that the world is not made for me.”
An emphasis on the brutality of athletic feats is an established trope that is not limited to ads featuring adaptive athletes. If anything, its usage here aligns Maria’s story more closely with nondisabled athletes than Toyota’s treatment of Lily Rice, which we found positioned wheelchair motocross as a spectacle of risk. However, narratives that glorify the overcoming of pain and bodily fallibility through force of will are nonetheless ableist in and of themselves. Moreover, it’s worth considering how Maria’s falls in the rink are positioned differently than the implied risk of falling as she walks with her cane. Once again, the messaging is convoluted. It’s possible to argue that these falls are different, because Maria is choosing this form of movement, with its attendant risks, whereas the risks of walking outdoors are imposed on her. But this doesn’t explain why Degree felt it important to emphasize the act of falling in its representation of Maria’s freedom and confidence to move. By linking these shots with her narration about being freed from the feeling the world is not made for her, the ad communicates that these falls are acceptable, even desirable, because they are normal. Degree is reiterating that ablenormative modes of movement constitute freedom, while recognizably disabled modes of movement are inherently constrained.
The ad cuts to a new scene, with Maria showering in her bathroom, then standing in front of her vanity. She reaches for her bottle of Degree Inclusive, selecting it by feel from an array of other skincare products. As she runs her hand along the items, the soundtrack introduces a sudden, brief, clattering drumbeat that closely resembles the sound of plastic containers tumbling onto a hard surface, although the video shows that Maria hasn’t knocked anything over. This is the only time this sound effect appears—another subtle signal for viewers that distinctively disabled ways of moving are to be understood as clumsy and lacking in confidence.
The camera cuts a way to a montage of Maria jogging and doing pushups on an outdoor track (still alone alone, this time at night, in the rain for added creepiness), tying her skates, and gliding through the rink, her arms outstretched, as she says with an audible smile in her voice:
“Try stopping me.”
We cut back once more to Maria in her bathroom, feeling her way along the tile wall toward her vanity, then a closeup of her holding the Degree Inclusive bottle and using her fingertips to read the portion of the label that features the product name in braille. She narrates the product hook:
“Degree has created the world’s first adaptive deodorant built with a diverse disability community because there should be no limits when something moves us.”
Within these posts, we typically do not include analyses of the products that are advertised. This is partially because ads featuring disability often do not feature a particular product but are instead oriented around a brand’s relationship to a particular disabled person or pseudo-charitable initiative. It is also because Critical Axis is concerned with the stories that brands tell about disability—because we believe these stories, and the way they’re told, shape the ways that products “for” disability get designed. However, in this case, the design of the product and its story are actively entangled, because the “product” is a prototype. Its form and function are still in flux, and the story is selling a design process for people to buy into as much as it is selling them an object to buy.
Because the ad claims that Degree Inclusive was “built with a diverse disability community,” we want to understand at what point in the design and branding process Degree sought its diverse collaborators. The two spots for the product feature a white woman and a white man. A blog post from Degree’s parent company Unilever specifies that the product is intended to serve two specific categories of disabled users: those with “limited sight or arm mobility.” The same post notes that Unilever partnered with three non-profit organizations, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Open Style Lab, and The Lighthouse Chicago, to test the prototype with “200 consumers with a range of physical disabilities.”
We question how diverse these 200 users and testers can be given the MDA’s historical and ongoing practices of exploitation and its consequently fraught relationship with the disabled community. Similarly, Chicago Lighthouse is led by a doctor and has a wealthy, white apparently non-disabled board that prioritizes the perspectives of occupational therapists over disabled people. Clinical, charitable, and institutional channels serve to weed out isolated, multiply marginalized, independent activists, scholars, and artists—those who may be suspicious of large-scale, centralized approaches to advocacy and the ways they tend to concentrate power. By relying primarily on charities as recruitment channels, Unilever effectively ensured that politically and culturally engaged disabled people were excluded from its research population.
Although Degree Inclusive’s tagline claims it was “built with a diverse disability community,” Unilever did not partner with disabled folks. They partnered with disability charities. It wasn’t until they arrived at a prototype that they invited disabled consumers to test it. The recruitment of disabled “users and testers” is routinely framed as meaningful inclusion, when in fact it is just another way that corporations extract, commodify, and marginalize lived experience while positioning themselves as “doing good” and “leading the way.”
These problems are not unique to Degree Inclusive. In fact, we encounter them routinely within design and branding “for” disability. When companies decide to make something about disability, they typically reach out to whichever organizations have the largest public profile. These organizations are typically charities, rarely disabled-led, and never engaged in disability through a politically and culturally-informed lens. The corporations pursue representational politics and think they are doing identity politics. They are then shocked and dismayed to hear that they’re still doing disability wrong. Then they absolve themselves by saying, “We consulted with people with disabilities, so clearly there’s never any one right way to do things.”
But they’re wrong about that too. If companies seek to “inspire bold action across the industry,” as Unilever claims, they must begin with taking bold action themselves. That starts with two things: expanding the roles they envision for marginalized people beyond those of spokesperson and user-tester; and interrogating the recruitment channels through which they attempt to reach marginalized creators, collaborators, and communities, asking who exists beyond the reach of those channels and why.
We’ve noted that the Degree Inclusive ads are selling a process as much as a product. But they’re also selling a promise, because Degree Inclusive doesn’t actually exist yet as a commercial product. In a 2017 article, When disability tech is just a marketing exercise, journalist Rose Eveleth identified a cycle of abandonment within the disability design space:
“This cycle is a common one. Companies know that accessibility projects can garner great press. They also probably know that many journalists are unlikely to follow up and see whether the big promises are actually coming true. So they flaunt their minimal or nonexistent ties to accessibility, reap the glowing media coverage, and let the projects slip quietly into the night.”
Since Eveleth published this piece, we have been tracking the abandonment of ‘accessibility’ announcements on Critical Axis. (We often point out Valspar’s egregious #ColorForAll initiative, which was so thoroughly dropped that the valsparcolorforall.com website became available on GoDaddy. After we pointed this out on Critical Axis, Valspar repurchased the website and redirected it to askval.com.)
In our consulting work, we have gained insights into how the process of abandonment happens internally. As we explained in an interview for the School of Visual Arts:
We typically encounter a mid-level employee who has advocated within the company to take on a project or initiative that we are supportive of. As that mid-level employee gains traction internally, the powers-that-be tend to take notice, because they perceive it as ‘doing good’. The powers-that-be then rush to announce the project or initiative, because things that ‘do good’ have a track record of serving the brand. And this is where things fall apart. Once a project or initiative has been announced, the powers-that-be lose interest, because they feel that the only value it held was in the announcement and you can’t announce something twice. The mid-level employee then experiences a loss of traction, resources are reallocated elsewhere, and the project disintegrates. So in our work, we strongly advise the mid-level employee to resist the announcement for as long as possible.
It’s worth asking what Unilever’s three disability nonprofit partners got out of the announcement for Degree Inclusive. The answer is mainstream relevance. If this was, in fact, a soft launch for an upcoming Paralympic campaign, then mainstream relevance also explains why Unilever chose to launch this ad now.
If the Paralympics are canceled, Unilever may no longer feel it has a relevant platform for their disability ads. This means conditions are ripe for abandonment—discarding the ads means discarding the product. The Paralympics are scheduled to begin on August 24th, which doesn’t leave much time to get from prototype to product; if the Paralympics go on as scheduled, Degree may only offer this ‘adaptive’ deodorant through limited release. As we’ve recently noted with Nike and LEGO, the limited release of accessibility branded products makes them inaccessible to consumers. This brings us back to Maria. She has a fear of speed, because she knows the consequences. We can’t help but ask Unilever and Degree: Do you?
Update: We were contacted on Twitter by Christina Mallon, a disabled designer and the Global Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at Wunderman Thompson, the agency Unilever contracted to lead this project. Mallon clarified that Wunderman Thompson worked with a diverse group of disabled activists, including Keah Brown, Tiffany Meehan, Keisha Greaves of Girls Chronically Rock, and Natalie Trevonne and Lissa Loe of Fashionably Tardy, from the beginning of product co-creation process. Mallon noted that, “there’s only so much that you can put out in a press release without overwhelming people.”
While we are pleased that culturally-engaged disabled people were involved through the product development, we would like to clarify that our analysis is focused on how the campaign is telling the stories not just of Maria and Nick, but of the Degree Inclusive design process, and that none of the many corporate or agency communications we have examined name or even mention the contributions of these activists. We are troubled by this erasure, particularly alongside the campaign’s emphasis on its nonprofit partners, and it reinforces our concern with how brands extract, commodify and marginalize disabled knowledge by reducing disabled collaborators to unnamed “users and testers.
Mallon also noted that Maria identifies as Hispanic, and that both she and Nick are Argentinian.