Originally published February 10, 2021.
One of the most discussed Super Bowl commercials from this past weekend was Toyota’s ad featuring Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long (who, by the way, is so good she’s got nearly twice as much championship hardware as Tom Brady). Titled “Upstream,” the spot snagged a prestigious Top 5 position on USA Today‘s Ad Meter, the closely watched real-time gauge of Super Bowl promo buzz. Advertising Age rated it at 4.5 stars (out of 5), making it one of only four ads to garner more than 4 stars. It was the #1 favorite commercial among AdWeek‘s million-plus social media followers and the 4th-favorite among AdWeek‘s editors. “Upstream” also made best-of lists at CNN, Business Insider, and People Magazine, among other outlets. It’s been watched close to a million times on YouTube and who knows how many times elsewhere. If you haven’t seen it yet, click the image.
Not everyone loved the ad. There were some lively dissents on Twitter from viewers who thought the commercial smacked of ableism and/or inspiration porn. A sample of this type of objection, from upper-limb amputee Britt Young: “Ads like Toyota, although well meaning, reinforce the kind of behaviors and attitudes I had to confront as a 14-year-old. The swimmer in the ad didn’t ‘overcome’ her disability, she had to defy ableism.” Emily Ladau, the author of Demystifying Disability, put it this way: “I’d like to see a disabled person advertising a car company, not a car company advertising a disabled person.”
There’s more in this vein at the #ToyotaWeDisApprove hashtag and elsewhere on Twitter. While they’re worthy critiques, these opinions seem to represent a minority. The responses we browsed at amputee support groups on Facebook were overwhelmingly positive. We emailed and direct-messaged a half-dozen or so limb-different friends of Amplitude; none had a problem with the ad.
Given the tremendous attention it generated, does “Upstream” rate as the greatest amputee-themed Super Bowl commercial of all time? You be the judge. We’ve linked a few other recent spots that put limb difference front and center during the Big Game. Check them out (they’re only a minute or two each), then vote for your favorite at the bottom of the page. We’ll publish the results next week on our Facebook page. (Poll is no longer live. See results here.)
2019: “We All Win” (Microsoft)
You might spot a familiar face among the handful of limb-different youngsters in this ad: tween activist Jordan Reeves. That makes perfect sense. The commercial promotes Microsoft’s new line of adaptive gaming gear, and Reeves at that time had recently made her mark as an inventor of inclusive toys. If you’re scoring at home, the Patriots won the game that year, 13-3 over the Rams. View the ad.
2018: “Good Odds” (Toyota)
Toyota again. Noticing a trend? As a longstanding Paralympic sponsor, the carmaker has regularly signed high-profile adaptive athletes as marketing partners. The star here is Winter Paralympian Lauren Woolstencroft, whose stack of medals is nearly as enormous as Jessica Long’s. The ad resembles “Upstream” in narrative structure and emotional tone, but it takes a more conventional visual approach. Game result: Eagles 41, Pats 33. View the ad.
2015: “Empowering Us All” (Microsoft)
Braylon O’Neill, the young man featured in this commercial, was born with fibular hemimelia, the same condition as Jessica Long. He was just five years old during production of this commercial, but he’d already taken up multiple sports (click the ad and see for yourself) and scored a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Per our latest information, he’s grown partial to baseball. As a Rhode Island resident, he was probably pleased with this game’s result: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24. View the ad.
2015: “The Greatest” (Toyota)
So now you know the dirty secret of Super Bowl commercials and amputees. Only two advertisers have both the clout to buy Super Bowl airtime and the inclination to feature amputees in their ads: Microsoft and Toyota. Both companies highlighted limb difference in 2015, with Toyota’s spot featuring a boffo voiceover from The Greatest. The competitor on screen, Amy Purdy, merited the same nickname as an icon of athletic excellence and cultural inclusion. View the ad.
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