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‘The voice of blind people hasn't been heard’: inside the fight for audio-described ads

Audio-described ads

When P&G's company accessibility leader decided to lead the drive for audio-described ads as standard, she was blown away at the ease in which brands can produce an inclusive spot for blind and visually impaired consumers. The real challenge, she soon found, lay rooted in the technicalities of the broadcast world.

Imagine there was a way to reach hundreds of millions more people with your TV ad by changing nothing at all. Imagine being able to speak directly to the 3% of the US population previously neglected by every other brand. Imagine increasing your media spend by just 0.0001% to boost your audience not marginally, but significantly.

The magic strategy does exist, and it lies in the economics of inclusion. If a company produced an audio description of its next ad for British TV, it would immediately reach an extra 2.2 million people – the community of legally blind or partially sighted consumers.

It’s a group that has been catered to by Hollywood and TV studios for some time through a toggleable track that describes the content happening on-screen. By law, American movie theaters must provide audio description headphone equipment to customers with limited sight, for instance, while the majority of Netflix’s catalog can be watched with supplemental narration switched on.

Yet advertising has, up until now, largely ignored the needs of blind people, who cannot process a visual gag, a clever piece of cinematography or, in some cases, a brand’s totally silent logo reveal in the final shot.

Ignorance of the issue is ingrained in today’s TV ad industry – so much so that even those closest to the problem have not fully comprehended its repercussions until recently.

Sumaira Latif, P&G’s company accessibility leader, has navigated the professional world without sight ever since retinitis pigmentosa rendered her blind before adulthood. But it was only when she was watching an ad for P&G’s Flash in 2016 that she realized the entire creative would be lost on the low vision population.

“It’s about a dog in a clean white kitchen,” she recalls. “He shakes off the mud and it gets all dirty again, and he’s singing Flash Gordon by Queen. That’s the funny part – that it’s the dog singing – but I couldn't see that. I didn’t get the joke. I didn't know what the fun was all about.

“That’s when I got the inspiration start making all our ads audio-described.”

An audio-described ad is visually identical to a regular spot – the difference just lies in the track that’s played behind it. The original audio is played at a slightly lower level while a narrator describes the action not communicated by sounds and speech.

This narration can comprise setting the scene, introducing the characters (such as ‘the villain’, ‘a mother’ or, in the case of an Olay ad from last year, ‘Sarah Michelle Geller’) and explaining the movements of the cast.

When an ad is audio-described, Latif says, it suddenly goes from something unengaging to “something I’m very interested in, because it makes me feel part of broader society: I can understand the ad like everybody else”.

Scripting an audio-described ad is a difficult skill to master. Unlike in cinema, where scenes can roll on for minutes without plot-altering action, the narrators of TV spots must clearly summarize every shot and storyline crammed into a 30-second spot – all the while doing everything they can to avoid crashing the original dialogue.

Other aspects of communication have to be taken into consideration as well. In the US, for instance, the National Federation of the Blind advocates for audio description be used to provide access to “critical information that is not already voiced,” says Chris Danielsen, the organization’s director of public relations.

“Examples ... include emergency alerts, phone numbers, product warnings, product names and brands, and other on-screen text that relays critical information [such as] symptoms, side effects, warnings and other data.”

In the UK, audio-described ads are held up to scrutiny by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) according to its own guidelines.

The ASA notes, for instance, that “audio description should include any essential visual elements, for example, on-screen text, which qualifies spoken claims".

But it’s not necessarily bureaucratic mandates such as these that have put advertisers off making audio-described creative. While the expense of making a separate audio described track is, according to Latif, “peanuts...on average, 0.0001% of the media plan”, marketers can be apprehensive about what it takes to make one – unaware that there are companies, such as Deluxe Media and BTI Studios that specialize in scripting, recording and even automating narration.

And demand for such advertising from the blind community has, unsurprisingly, been low.

“No consumer is going to ask for an advert,” admits Latif. “So, similarly, no blind consumer is going to ask for the description.”

But as it’s P&G now doing the asking, things have started to change.

Latif secured buy-in for audio-described ads from her employer – the biggest advertiser on the planet ­– by walking straight into the one place she felt the “voice of blind people hadn’t been heard”: the boardroom.

She put her case to chief brand officer Marc Pritchard, who challenged her to audio-describe a P&G ‘Thank You Mom’ commercial starring the blind Paralympian Lex Gillette.

“Within 24 hours we got the ad audio-described, and within a week or so we had put it out,” says Latif. “That really helps – recognition at the highest levels of the company that this is fundamentally the right thing to do to grow your business and to become more inclusive."

Unfortunately, the audio-described Lex Gillette ad was only available to watch online, because the networks where the ad was airing didn’t carry a separate audio description track.

This is the biggest obstacle to airing audio-described commercials: the ’pipes‘ needed to broadcast a separate audio track are typically switched off by networks during ad breaks.

This means that even if a blind person is watching TV with audio description switched on during programming, they will not be able to listen in. It also means that even if an advertiser has produced an audio-described track, there’s no guarantee this will be broadcast on every network it has bought media with.

A number of networks have overcome the technical issues associated with giving advertisers access to their audio description pipe. In the UK, Channel 4 now offers the service across commercial breaks on E4, More4, 4Seven, Film4 and its flagship channel across the “majority” of the UK.

ITV broadcast its first high definition audio described ad – a spot for P&G’s Fairy Liquid – back in 2017. It has offered the tech to other advertisers ever since.

Bill Brown, ITV’s head of media standards, laid out the challenges involved with getting the capabilities in place.

“We had to carry out technical upgrade work before we could operationally deliver the new service, including conducting thorough end-to-end testing before going live,” he says.

“Secondly, change management and process issues had to be addressed to ensure key stakeholders came on the journey with us and operational staff knew exactly what they needed to do. Finally, the other factor we had to guard against... was ensuring we didn’t introduce any significant risk into our end-to-end content supply chain.”

Latif has spent the last few years campaigning closely with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), which has been pushing brands to audio-describe ads on the buy side. Sonali Rai, the institute’s audio description technology manager, notes progress. In 2019, she says, “John Lewis, Tesco, eBay, KFC, Asda, M&S, Innocent and others worked hard to ensure that their TV campaigns were accessible for people who rely on audio description to enjoy TV”.

“RNIB appreciates the challenges in adding audio description to ads,” Rai adds, “but there is enough experience in the field today to start looking at creative ways to do so and make content accessible for people with sight loss.”

A number of grassroots groups have been set up to make audio-described technology easier for both brands and broadcasters to implement. In the W3C Community, the Audio Description Community Group and Timed Text Working Group both comprise of professionals from the media and supplier community, with the latter currently working to create an open standard exchange format for audio description.

“The focus of the work is not specifically on any action plans relating to any genre of content in particular, such as getting ads audio described; rather, it is on facilitating interoperability between tools across the workflow for preparing and distributing audio description to make it easier and hopefully cheaper to audio describe all content in general,” explains Nigel Megitt, the group’s co-chair and executive product manager at the BBC.

Meanwhile, companies such as Dom Bourne’s transcribing company, Take 1, are experimenting with AI to further cut costs for advertisers interested in audio description. This means a script could be voiced by a synthetic yet “natural-sounding” bot, eliminating the cost of a voiceover artist and speeding up the process.

The US market appears less enthused about turning audio-described ads into a media buying standard.

In its latest report to Congress on the current status of video description, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) addressed the topic of advertising only in the context of increasing revenues; for instance, asking whether audio description of more primetime shows would lead to more ad sales.

NAB does not have a position on the audio description of commercials, a spokesperson confirmed. Anecdotally, not many audio-described ads appear to be reaching American audiences.

“Right now, the only advertising I know of that is occasionally described with audio description is movie and show trailers, and this is rare, although Apple TV+ has audio description for all the previews for its original content,” says the US-based Danielsen.

“I have heard audio for description of a trailer come through a cinema headset exactly twice in all the time I’ve been going to a theater that routinely has audio description for the films it shows.”

But now P&G has proven its campaigning power in the UK market, American broadcasters may soon follow. The world’s largest advertiser is now audio-describing all of its ads in the US, as well as in the UK and Spain, and is softly pressuring networks to “have those pipes ready for when we want to send our content through them”.

“We are on a journey to expanding and making this process sustainable,” says Latif. “But there's a lot of education work to do.”

Once the infrastructure is in place in the US, UK and Spain, there’s the small task of opening up those broadcaster pipelines in every other market – or at least the other 177 countries where P&G products can be purchased.

And then there’s the monumental but necessary challenge of lobbying the disparate streaming industry; despite its roots in digital, none of broadcasters The Drum spoke to confirmed advertisers could run audio-described ads on their proprietary streaming platforms.

Facebook also does not have the tech built into infrastructure. However it is understood the network is looking into building such a system, having already developed automatic alternative text and custom alternative text on Instagram, which allow for people with visual impairments to “hear” a photo and its caption.

It’s a daunting task ahead for P&G and Latif, given the lackluster speed at which audio-described advertising has progressed so far.

But she is determined to make it happen, knowing all too well what it’s like to miss out on a shared cultural experience. And now, she has a blueprint of action from her experience in the UK – work with local organizations for the blind, engage with broadcasters and start the conversation among other advertisers.

“My vision is for this to roll out as much as possible,” she says. “The challenge is not for P&G not wanting to do it, but the fact that we really can't do this alone.”

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