‘Reindeer Games’ was Microsoft’s official 2018 Holiday ad. It launched during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC. The spot starts with a boy wearing pajama pants, running out of his house shouting ‘he’s gonna do it’ as he runs through his snowy neighborhood. He interrupts two other neighborhood kids during a game of backyard hockey by announcing ‘you’ve got to see this’. They drop their sticks and follow him to a third house where a girl is playing Xbox, they beckon her from outside the window and she joins the group as they continue running through the neighborhood picking up kids along the way.
Finally, the whole lot of scruffy children reach their destination, a house they rush into to discover a room filled with kids, all surrounding a disabled boy (Owen), cheering him on as he uses his Xbox Adaptive Controller to beat the game he’s playing. The kids break into celebration and dance as the tagline appears across the screen ‘When everybody plays, we all win’. A final shot reads ‘Give Wonder’ as a drone pans up and away from the house, snow falling, reminiscent of the perspective Santa would have from his sleigh.
There’s some really exciting stuff about this ad. The kids are fantastic. Especially Owen. Even better? He was actually using a product that was created for him and is widely available for purchase. This is a rarity in advertisements that feature disability and needs to be celebrated.
But we have noticed that while ‘Reindeer Games’ finds itself in the aspirational upper right quadrant for selling a product intended for a disabled consumer, it falls to the bottom of the matrix on every other element we’ve identified.
How does this happen? Quite simply, we aren’t witnessing Owen’s journey. We are witnessing the journey of Owen’s friends who are witnessing his journey. We experience and get caught up in their awe and excitement before we have even encountered Owen. This build up leads to a surprise reveal of Owen, a physically disabled boy playing a video game. The entire premise of this ad turns the product they are featuring into a device that allows a SuperCrip to overcome.
Like so many ads where the disabled person is the central character, we don’t get to experience what Owen has to say.
We grappled with who the intended audience was for this ad, given the fact that the controller was created for disabled people. But the phrase ‘when everybody plays we all win’, made us realize this ad was not targeting disabled consumers. ‘Everybody’ in this case is euphemistic language for disabled people. And ‘we’ is all of us who are bearing witness, be it the children who run through the neighborhood or those of us who experience this ad on our laptops or television screens.
And so we ask Microsoft, what if you tried using the word ‘disability’ in lieu of ‘everybody’?