The Media Edge Department
Christopher Reeve's Ad
By Jennifer Burnett.
Jennifer Burnett writes about media and disability issues.
Time Magazine's Charles Krauthammer weighs in . . .
. . And disability rights activists respond
Where to send your comments on the ad
The Super Bowl has a reputation for showcasing original and outrageous ads that get additional free airtime when they're discussed in news programs, talk shows -- even sitcoms. Advertisers relish those articles and discussions.
Nuveen's ad of Christopher Reeve getting out of his power chair to present an award was a digital creation meant to get viewers' attention. Which it certainly did. The Today Show and ABC Good Morning America talked about it. It got plenty of print comment too, including in the disability press. Spinal cord injury chat rooms bubbled, praising the ad for drawing attention to the need for money for research, berating Reeve for inability to accept disability. The Reeve/Nuveen ad wasn't peddling "the cure," though. It was peddling investing, or "wealth management" as Nuveen calls it. It offended New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott, who called it "crass and more than a little creepy." ("If the spot were selling increased research for spinal cord injuries" it would have been "inspirational," Elliott said.)
Getting attention, of course, is the basic goal of advertising.
"Our goal is to change the way people think about wealth," said Nuveen in a press release from the Minneapolis-based Fallon McElligott ad agency, which created the ad (and whose clients have included BMW of North America, Fortune Magazine, Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Holiday Inn and Nordstrom's, FAO Schwarz and the Children's Defense Fund).
With an unemployment rate of over 70%, the vast majority of people with disabilities could not begin to be considered consumers of this product. But the ad was not created with the disability market in mind; its target was people with money. It unabashedly pulled at heartstrings with an in-your-face, no-holds-barred "disability is bad" message. In the tradition of Jerry Lewis, this ad meant to bring tears to the eyes of football fans during their favorite game, courtesy of the incredibly courageous former Superman.
The ad may have done more damage than Jerry himself: unlike the telethon, this "disability is bad" message aired during one of the year's most watched TV events. Nuveen paid $4 million for that minute of airtime.
Dalton Deitrich of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis applauded the ad's "wonderful emotional appeal": "If it focuses more attention on the need for research, that would be wonderful too." But even "cure" professionals were questioning Nuveen's stunt: the ad "might raise expectations unreasonably."
Reeve was quick to downplay skepticism. "The biggest problem actually is people who have been in a chair for a very long time," he told ABC's Good Morning America -- "because in order to survive psychologically they have to accept, 'OK, I'm going to have to spend my life in a chair.'"
Chapman University's Art Blaser thinks Reeve's popularity reflects the American belief that "We can fix anything different, so we will, since difference cannot be tolerated." He also thinks it reflects cynicism: "If laws won't be implemented and some will be gutted, and if social movement activity is unpromising, then an individual cure may be the best of a bad situation."
Four days after the Super Bowl, the front page of the Harrisburg, PA Patriot News Healthy Living Section featured a "litany of celebrities who've gone public with their own afflictions" to raise public awareness, "humanize an illness" and "raise money for research." A color photo showed Reeve "walking."
But the front page that day carried a more compelling real-life story: Jennifer Wambold, paralyzed from the chest down, earning her high school diploma seven years after a diving accident. A photo showed Wambold in her power chair.
Wambold, reported the paper, lived in a nursing home. As Pennsylvania First Lady Michele Ridge gave Jennifer her diploma, did she question why Wambold lived in a nursing home? Perhaps she felt a nursing home was an appropriate place for her. Pennsylvania puts 98% of its long term care budget -- $2.7 billion a year -- into nursing homes; it ranks dead last in state spending for in-home personal assistance services.
Celebrities may dwell on the "negative" of disability and seek the cure, but people like Jennifer Wambold will not disappear. Disability is a fact of life.
To send comments on Nuveen Investments' ad featuring Christopher Reeve walking, write to:
Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation
500 Morris Avenue
Springfield, NJ 07081
333 W. Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606
312/917-7700 (corporate headquarters)
901 Marquette Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55402
"These kids should be . . . preparing themselves for the opportunities in the new world that high technology has for the first time in history made possible for the disabled . . . "
--Charles Krauthammer, "Restoration, Reality and Christopher Reeve"
Time Magazine Feb 14, 2000
Time Magazine has virtually never carried the disability perspective. Stories have focused on caregivers; abuse by "aides"; the inspirational or the heroic.
Opening the Feb. 14 Time to Charles Krauthammer's back-page "Restoration, Reality and Christopher Reeve" essay, in which the well-known neoconservative pundit argued the fallacy of Reeve's "cure" fantasy, was encouraging.
Krauthammer wrote that he had been in a wheelchair from a spinal injury since age 22. "For 28 years I've been hearing that a cure is just a few years away. Being a doctor, I have discounted such nonsense." A medical expert -- a disabled one, no less -- was preaching the right message in a national newsweekly.
Maybe Krauthammer didn't get it completely right, but his authoritative spin on the potentially devastating impact of Reeve's message on newly disabled people was a major media inroad.
Some quotes from our readers
The opportunities in this new world for people with disabilities have not been created by technology alone. They are the result of several generations of intensifying disability rights activism that has won passage of laws protecting us from discrimination and guaranteeing us access. . . . We need to ask why society keeps giving Reeve platforms to propagate his views but excludes the disability rights perspective
-- Paul Longmore
If I had pulled a Christopher Reeve 30 years ago, none of at least 1,000 buildings would be accessible today.
-- Tom Deniston,
Accessible Design Associates
Walking or not walking, Reeve is Reeve, as his aptly titled autobiography, "Still Me," tries to say. That rhetoric is belied by his actions, though, which only convince the world that until he can walk again he is not "still me."
-- Steve Brown,
Institute for Disability Culture
Maybe the "cure" can be discovered sooner because of Reeve's contributions. But let everyone see how he did it: He did it in his wheelchair.
-- Gary Ray Rogers
"In Reeve's view, reality is a psychological crutch. His propaganda to that effect undermines those -- particularly the young and newly injured -- who are struggling to face reality, master it and make a life for themselves from their wheelchairs."
-- Charles Krauthammer, "Restoration, Reality and Christopher Reeve", Time Magazine Feb 14, 2000
The problem, Krauthammer said, is not that "people in wheelchairs don't dream enough about getting out of them" but that some newly disabled people "dream about it too much" and never get on with their lives.
"If I am wrong, the worst that can happen is that when the miracle comes, the nonbelievers will find themselves overtrained and overtoughened," wrote Krauthammer. "But if Reeve is wrong, what will his dreamers be left with?"
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