Fumbled Opportunities: Super Bowl LVIII Ads Overlooked Accessibility

Feb 12, 2024

Super Bowl LVIII has come and gone, and the night’s biggest fumble didn’t even happen on the field. 

There were 115M Viewers, Americans spent $17.3B on snacks, and companies spent over $600M on commercials – the numbers, the money, and the hype are staggering. It’s not just a game; it’s a spectacle. A spectacle that places more than one hundred million people in front of a screen at the same time, all watching the same thing. But sadly, for millions of viewers, there was a glaring hole of nothingness – the sheer lack of visible disability representation.  

Like many of us, my friends were in a group chat about our plans for the night. Who was bringing the wine, the pizza, the pimento cheese, who was rooting for whom, and so on. Sunday morning, I woke up and added an addition of my own: “Hi friends, I’m writing a blog focused on disability at the Super Bowl, and I’d love your help. Note anything you see, think, or feel throughout the evening.”  Everyone was eagerly up for the task.

The outcome? It’s fair to say no one missed anything during trips to the bathroom.  

Why Disability Representation in the Media Matters

Let’s put this into perspective. If we conservatively consider that approximately 20% of all viewers have a disability (based on U.S. averages), that means over 23 million viewers weren’t seeing themselves represented. In more than 50 minutes of ads that aired during the 2024 Super Bowl, only one commercial specifically focused on disability as the central focus of the ad. That’s 30 seconds out of a four-hour game. That’s a fraction of the time and visibility afforded to other demographics. It’s just not good enough, and it’s not smart business.  

Then there was the game itself, each of the evening’s music artists were paired with an ASL interpreter, but the interpreters flashed on the screen for a millisecond, long enough to wave to the world, never to be seen again. 

Representation matters. When people with disabilities are consistently left out of mainstream media and cultural events like the Super Bowl, it sends a powerful message that our experiences and contributions are not valued, and importantly that there’s a persistent lack of understanding of the purchasing power of disabled consumers. 

In an interview earlier this week from Marketplace, Jeanine Poggi, Editor of Ad Age spoke to the lack of overall diversity in this year’s ads. She took a moment to single out disability: “One thing I’m really surprised about, that hasn’t changed, and we’ll have more on this, is accessibility in Super Bowl commercials. Talking about the disabled community. It’s one area where you talk about inclusivity. And even accessibility when it comes to closed captioning in Super Bowl ads is not something many brands are really thinking about right now. And that’s one thing, so far, that’s standing out to me. I thought that would change year to year and it doesn’t appear that it has.

During this year’s game, there were roughly 80 ads that in total ran for just over 50-minutes. On average, companies spent $7 million as a base for a 30-second spot.  The business of the Super Bowl is unquestionably built on extravagance and enjoyment. Yet, amid the frenzy of advertisements and entertainment, the noticeable absence of disability representation felt different this year. Maybe it’s because over the last few years, there have been great moments, I’ll go as far as to say significant “wins” when it came to advertising spend in the spotlight.   

With that said, one featured ad is a strong example of tech innovation for disabled consumers. 

Google’s Guided Frame, is an AI-powered accessibility feature on the Pixel camera designed to assist blind and low-vision individuals in taking selfies and photos. Adam Morse, the director, lost his sight at 19 due to mitochondrial disease, making him the first person with blindness to direct a Super Bowl ad. In the groundbreaking ad, the world is depicted through the eyes of a person with low vision. Rather than relying on postproduction alterations, Morse innovatively used petroleum jelly on the camera lens to achieve a blurred effect, enhancing the authenticity of his portrayal. Google has gone further than the ad by releasing behind-the-scenes footage, an accompanying blog authored by one of their leading figures, KR Liu, Global Head of Disability Innovation, as well as PR muscle to talk about the “why of it all”.  All of that combines into a pretty fulsome example of a company harnessing the power of accessibility for innovation and profit.  

Other mentions that included people with disabilities: 

  • The Jenna Ortega ad for Doritos highlighting two older women using mobility aids, while channeling Jason Bourne-level moves in order to get a bag of chips. 
  • The NFL’s apparel ad, which did not premiere last night but has been airing throughout the playoffs features a person with a limb difference.  
  • The Kia ad, “The Power Within” which I will admit I am including despite my cynical, side-eye feelings about this one as it highlights a grandfather who seemingly can’t leave the house due to illness and is a chair-user.

Momentum is on the Horizon

Even though this year’s event was lacking, I am optimistic enough to believe that overall there is positive momentum. Recently, TD Bank and Accenture announced that they are collaborating to form a coalition of Chief Marketing Officers to address and create action for underrepresentation in advertising, and companies like Apple, are putting major stake-in-the-ground campaign moments to highlight the accessibility of their products and the beauty of disabled life in all its facets. Their campaign around “The Greatest” has 18M views and astronomical ripples on social media.  

As the confetti settles on the winners and the losers of this year’s Super Bowl, it’s crucial to reflect on how to be better next year. The lack of disability representation during one of the world’s most-watched events is a stark reminder that there’s no shortage of work to do in helping companies understand and capitalize on the opportunity and the importance of disability as a market. Here’s to hoping that more of us can win next year.