I've been notified by seven different friends about the new ad from Target. Check it out.
A lot of blogs are celebrating this ad, for good reasons: one of the models, Ryan, has Down syndrome, and Target isn't making a big deal about this. As one blogger notes, "This wasn’t a “Special Clothing For Special People” catalog." In fact, Target seems not to be saying anything about the fact of Ryan's Down syndrome at all. It's as if Ryan is just a child being featured in a children's clothing ad.
This is important, of course. Seeing people with disabilities in plain old pop culture matters. Biffle and I are intensely aware of that. Pop culture material like advertising plays a big role in shaping our sense of the world we live in. And by "our," I mean all of us who encounter this material. I talk about this in classes a lot: ads affect our sense not only of what it means to be attractive but what it means to be normal, to be romantic, to be effective and appropriate.
Individual ads are always carefully designed. They're expensive enough that every detail is intentional--every curl, every expression, every fold. It's not an accident when a woman's nipple is almost visible, or when all the wrinkles have been Photoshopped away.
But what's truly important is less the individual ad and more the patterns that are established. For instance, one pervasive pattern in contemporary advertising is a pathologically thin female body presented as attractive. It would be okay if we had occasional images of pathological thinness, but does every single ad have to feature the super-skinny hairless girl as if she's the norm?
Another pattern is that certain bodies don't appear at all. There are a number of vulnerable populations that simply don't show up, including people with visible disabilities.
So it's a big deal when those folks appear in pop culture in ways that aren't stereotyped ("Oh, that kid with Down syndrome is so sweet!") or headlined. It will be a bigger deal when this is less of a shock, when we don't have to have blog posts all over the internet celebrating this image of human diversity (I mean, even Andrew Sullivan had a shout-out to this ad!). What Biffle and I want is for this to be a pattern, a phenomenon so familiar that we don't have to take notice.
P.S. In case you're curious about some of the attention this ad has gotten: