Michael Orsini and Anne McGuire offer a critical disability studies perspective on the Hospital for Sick Children’s latest ad campaign.
It is, no doubt, visually arresting. And, of course, that is the point. The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) launched its flashy, multi-million dollar ad campaign this weekend with a two-minute video, titled “Anthem,” that is a virtual orgy of images and sound.
Set against Donnie Daydream’s rap song “Undeniable”, the video is a discombobulating mix of children clad in war paint, blood oozing from orifices, an exploding cast, the suffocating hum of children underwater, muscular, bench-pressing male bodies, a mountain of twisted metal wheelchairs, and much more. And in case you missed the war metaphors, there are images of soldiers on a pseudo-battlefield carrying bayonets and armour-clad knights charging headlong toward their opponent, a throwaway perhaps to Game of Thrones’ enthusiasts. The phrase “SICK ISN’T WEAK” lights up the screen, followed quickly by “WEAK FIGHTS BACK.”
The campaign message is very clear: there is no room for weakness in the face of disability or illness.
Gone are the days of pitiful images of long faces and sorrowful music that tugs at the heartstrings. The children featured in this ad campaign don’t want your sympathy. They are brave foot soldiers girding for battle; all they need is your money to fund the war against a raft of conditions that affect them – cancer, kidney failure, cystic fibrosis, autism. In a cynical age in which we are beset by compassion fatigue, advertising campaigns need to grab viewers by the throat.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
First, likening illnesses and disability to war forgets the range of experiences and outcomes associated with these conditions. Some of the kids living with the conditions highlighted in the campaign will not “win the battle” and it’s not because they are morally weak or don’t have enough fight in them. The war metaphor implies that positive health outcomes flow naturally from personal will, good choices and a positive attitude. The video’s hyper-focus on overcoming weakness, of conquering illness or disability and ‘getting back to normal’ is a textbook example of ableism, which prominent disability activist Lydia X.Z. Brown defines as “the systematic, institutional devaluing of bodies and minds deemed deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than.”
Second, the metaphor of battle offers up clear-cut oppositional categories: you are either a winner or loser, an ally or an enemy. These polarizing scenarios gloss over the messy reality that disability, illness and disease can mean different things to different people at different times. Lived experiences of disability and illness can be a slow and steady march of ups and downs. Rarely do they follow a linear narrative. Moreover, as Dhruv Khullar explains in The Atlantic, “it seems strange that the language of healing remains so interwoven with the language of warfare, especially in the era of chronic disease, when many conditions are controlled and managed, not eradicated or annihilated.”
Third, some of the conditions referenced in the ad are not diseases at all. What does it mean, for instance, to wage a war against autism, especially when many autistic people do not view it as something to be fixed? Grouping autism together with cystic fibrosis and cancer inappropriately frames autism as a life-threatening disease and denies the worth of autistic minds and bodies.
The defenders of this “bold” initiative suggest that the campaign is about empowering children: “This notion that we are winning, but we won’t stop fighting until every kid is a healthy kid,” said SickKids’ VP of brand strategy and communications. If it succeeds in raising funds for the Hospital, it will have been worth it, right? And yet, we are still left to wonder: what is empowering about a child understanding their illness as a threat that they must valiantly overcome?
Writing about tuberculosis and cancer in her classic work Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag speculates about how the metaphors we summon to understand illness “are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of this culture, for our shallow attitude toward death, for our anxieties about feeling … and for our justified fears of the increasingly violent course of history.”
This ad campaign sends a frightening message that violence is the only justifiable response to the presumably crushing experience of vulnerability. Hospitals spend a great deal of time caring for their patients, but there is little interest in depicting these practices in a campaign that is designed to rebrand illness itself as the new battleground.
Michael Orsini is a Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa @OrsiniMichael