Learning Sign Language
‘Learning Sign Language’ is a Wells Fargo ad that was launched in April of 2015 to “reflect the diversity of its customers and get beyond products and services to tell emotional stories that illustrate universal truths” according to Wells Fargo CMO Jamie Moldafsky.
The spot begins with a brown haired woman signing to a phone screen, while seated on a public bus. We then encounter a blonde haired woman comfortably nestled in some pillows signing to a computer screen. The scene then cuts back to the brunette, now in her kitchen, signing to a tablet that’s propped up on the counter. The blonde haired woman is then seated in front of a desktop computer in, what looks like a home office.
Back and forth we go, in what begins to feel like a large screen contest until we discover the brunette signing to the biggest screen of all at a desk near the kitchen, while the blonde woman clears the table in the background. In the next scene, the two women sit together in a car, as the blonde haired woman reassuringly puts her hand on the arm of the brunette who is driving.
‘Learning Sign Language’ utilizes a gradual reveal to tell the story of two women who are adopting a d/Deaf child. At first the viewer may surmise that the two women are using new technologies to converse with one another. But once we see them together, we are left trying to unpack why, or to whom these two women might be communicating. That ASL is used as a plot device in this way may be, in and of itself, stigmatizing, as this commercial relies on the viewer expectation that there must be a reason two women are communicating in such a manner.
At the same time that we discover that these two women are not, in fact, d/Deaf as the viewer may have been led to believe, we also learn that they are adopting a young d/Deaf child. The blonde haired woman signs ‘Hello Peekaboo’, which makes the girl smile. The new mother continues signing ‘Ham Slices, High Five, Karate Chop’ and the girl looks at them confused. The brunette chimes in by signing ‘Wheels go round’ and the young girl responds by signing ‘I think my heart just stopped’.
And this is where we’re left asking how a viewer would have responded to, as what Rachel Maddow called ‘the ‘sweetest banking commercial of all time’, had it been told from the perspective of the young girl. The girl said, not once, but twice that her heart stopped, and we’re left imagining how frightening it must be to go home with two people who cannot effectively communicate with you.
This is the harm of inspiration porn; it relies on disabled traumas to inspire general audiences without actually reckoning with harm done. We, as mainstream audiences, are so eager to feel a certain way about a situation, that we fail to imagine what the disabled person must be going through.
And so, we are left asking would ‘my heart just stopped’ be so endearing if this story was told from the young girl’s perspective?