Lily Rice was only thirteen years old when she became the first female athlete in Europe to land a wheelchair backflip. Now, at fifteen, Lily has launched a campaign to ensure her sport – wheelchair motocross (WCMX) is recognized in future Paralympic games. She argues that WCMX is similar to BMX and Skateboarding, both of which will secure huge audiences at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Lily would make an incredible ambassador for just about any brand, but Toyota’s latest ‘Start Your Impossible’ ad leaves us wondering what brands need to learn about disability culture, in order to ensure that the representation they create is liberating rather than stigmatizing.
Music plays an important role in creating emotional affect within advertising. Ads featuring disability are dominated by sentimentality, and we often see the same musical tropes repeated over and over within them. Tentative, solitary notes on a keyboard to suggest loneliness and isolation. Swelling strings signify overcoming and inspiration. Bright piano chords in a major key, providing a comfortable resolution.
The soundtrack in Toyota’s “Start Your Impossible” ad featuring Lily Rice dominates the audience’s multisensory experience, as evidenced by the video’s Youtube comment section, the majority of which is dedicated to praising the song featured in the ad. We have therefore decided to focus our analysis on its music, and to consider the ways in which the music both reinforces a number of common narrative and thematic tropes, and reveals a lack of familiarity with disability culture and history on the part of the ad’s creators. (It is also worth noting that the Youtube video is not captioned, and that the emotional messaging conveyed by the ad’s soundtrack is therefore inaccessible to D/deaf/HOH viewers.)
The ad opens with Lily performing tricks within a massive, empty wheel park, while the audience is serenaded by a surreal interpretation of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, a song written by Steven Foster in 1864, that “tells of a lover serenading a “Beautiful Dreamer” who is oblivious to worldly cares and may actually be dead.” Popular renditions from the early 20th century oftentimes paired the vocal melody with rich symphonic arrangements, creating a lullaby.
By contrast, the cover used in the Toyota ad features a dramatically slowed-down tempo, isolating the singer’s voice against a sparse background of faint, sustained string chords. Mixed with the sounds of whooshing, rattling and scraping of Lily’s wheels against the concrete ramps of an empty wheel park and the audiences is all but transported to a derelict carnival ground replete with broken-down carousel. Are we witnessing something inspiring, or tragic? Is our protagonist a hopeful dreamer, or is she trapped in a nightmare?
The first image we see in a flashback montage of Lily’s early life shows her as an infant, clutched to her mother’s chest, with a tear rolling down her cheek. We then see Lily as a toddler, running down a wood-floored hallway in sock-clad feet, stumbling and falling toward the floor which culminates in a shot where Lily’s legs and feet are stretched out against a blue hospital gurney, supported by plastic braces, with a doctor seated in the background. This flashback places us firmly within a Medical Model framework, positioning disability as a personal tragedy.
But Toyota is looking to tell a more inspirational story, about how a beautiful dreamer overcomes the tragedy of her disability. So, after cutting back briefly to Lily surveying the empty wheel park, the ad moves through another series of quick shots of her in the present-day. Lily seated in her wheelchair, looking at herself in her bedroom mirror. Lily practicing on a ramp showing the Toyota Wheel Parks wordmark, surrounded by skaters and other wheelchair users. Lily smiling broadly as she watches the other athletes around her, suggesting the growth of both her own confidence and the community around her. The song’s instrumental track builds in intensity with swelling strings, and faster, brighter-sounding piano chords. An extreme close-up shot of Lily’s eye closing fades to black and pauses there for an instant, signifying that we are moving from reality into a dreamscape.
We now see a wide shot of the stadium-sized wheel park, which is brightly lit and filled with spectators whose voices add a faint roar to the soundtrack. Lily is seated atop the towering ramp when the camera switches perspective, insisting the viewer look down the ramp as though we have become Lily. Lingering at the top of the steep slope, we begin to accelerate down, our whooshing and rattling completing the soundtrack. It feels as though we are riding a rollercoaster. Toyota wants us to become one with Lily, not to relate to her, but to emphasize the danger associated with her athleticism.
When advertisements like these feature non-adaptive extreme sports, brands tend to focus on the skill of the athlete, rather than the height of the hill. Consider this 2018 Super Bowl ad featuring Lindsay Vonn, which uses similar flashbacks to tell the story of a risky sport, one that has caused an athlete real bodily harm. However, instead of focusing on the dangerous terrain that Vonn is traversing, the ad romanticizes her repeated falls and injuries as evidence of her resilience and athletic power—a message that is underscored by the use of Alicia Keys’ R&B ballad “This Girl Is On Fire” as a backing track. By contrast, Lily’s ad positions WCMX as a spectacle of risk, reminding us that under the medical model, disability is equated with vulnerability and passivity.
Toyota’s aesthetic and thematic choices in how to represent Lily reflect the Paralympic tradition of portraying disability as a public spectacle fraught with risk. In a 2012 paper titled ‘Patients, Athletes, Freaks: Paralympism and the Reproduction of Disability’, Danielle Peers demonstrates how Paralympism has allowed for the reconfiguration of 19th century freak show to “form a “grotesquely fascinating” and “politically correct” sporting spectacle that serves, in various ways, to perpetuate the power relationships and social contexts that sustain disability.”
The audience leans forward onto the edge of their seats, cheering as Lily catapults into the air, entering into an aerial backflip in slow motion as the cinematic bass drop, which just began moments earlier, reverberates. But somehow Lily never lands. This is not the first Paralympics ad to feature a wheelchair user on a mega ramp who never lands. It also happens in the 2016 ‘We Are The Superhumans’ ad for Maltesers. We, at Critical Axis, are curious to see if this becomes a trend.
Paradoxically, Olympic audiences have been taught for generations that it doesn’t count if the athlete doesn’t land. This is what we hear time and again, be it in gymnastics or skateboarding or skiing: ‘stick the landing’. We can’t help but wonder if, within the carnival-like spectacle of these para-athletic achievements, we are also being told ‘it doesn’t really count’.
As Peers explains: Paralympic discourses and practices, in contrast to the claim of empowerment, are implicated in the perpetuation of the practices and unequal power relationships in and through which disability is experienced and sustained.
What the viewer witnesses, in lieu of Lily landing her jump, clarifies how unequal power relationships are sustained in Paralympic narratives. The ad concludes with an aerial shot of the stadium overlaid by the Toyota Wheel Parks logo, and text that reads, “Helping Lily achieve her Paralympic dream,” and the campaign slogan, “Start Your Impossible.” An end card shows the Toyota wordmark, the Olympic and Paralympic logos, and the MobilityForAll.com URL, with a voiceover from Lily reciting Toyota’s brand line, “When you’re free to move, anything is possible.”
In all of this, we are left wondering what Lily’s involvement in Toyota’s Wheel Parks is, as she seems to have become a passive recipient of Toyota’s good will. But Lily doesn’t seem like a passive recipient to us. As is the case with so many of these ads, we never hear from Lily. That is, until the end when she is recorded espousing Toyota’s brand line “When you’re free to move, anything is possible.”
This ad is misleading. Toyota frames it as a Paralympic ad, but makes no mention of the fact that Lily is being systemically prevented from participating in the Paralympics through the exclusion of her sport, wheelchair motocross (WCMX). Audiences have no way of knowing that Lily is lobbying to change this. If this were any other athlete, the brand would have called themselves a ‘proud partner’, rather than claiming to ‘help’. But this is just another example of how the things disabled people radically fight for consistently turn into things that are empathatically done for us.
This advertisement does not tell audiences what they mean by ‘Wheel Park’ or how they differ from traditional skate parks. The advertisement also does not tell audiences where these ‘Wheel Parks’ can be found. And that is because people who might be interested in using such a park are not the intended audience for this ad. Everyone else is.
We’re left wondering what could be if Toyota instead used it’s platform to amplify Lily’s advocacy, allowing her to educate the viewer and get her message out. Would this not be a path forward in Lily realizing her dream? In order for Toyota to succeed, they can’t claim their involvement is help, but rather they need to become a proud partner in the fight to get WCMX into the Paralympic games.