By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

February 16, 2021 | 6 min read

For the first time in the history of the Big Game, this year saw Tide Detergent feature descriptive video, ensuring its Super Bowl spot was inclusive for the blind and visually impaired community. On the back of this accessibility milestone, The Drum explores its significance, questioning what more advertisers can do to reach blind audiences.

The next time you sit and watch the TV, close your eyes at the ad break. Open them, then put your sound on mute. Ask yourself: do I know which brand is pitching to me? Do I know what they’re selling?

While sighted viewers ingest media and advertising creative amid a sensory overload, visually and hearing-impaired audiences face a constant strain.

"My husband lost his sight 15 years ago to an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa,” says Sheri Lawrence, president of Tylie ad solutions. “We watch TV while we eat dinner, and when the commercials air, too many times he would say, ‘what was that ad for’?“

It suddenly dawned on them both just how ridiculous the situation was. How could advertisers expect to sell products when they don’t say who the products are for? There are 385 million blind or visually impaired people globally – that’s pretty much the population of the US and the UK combined – and there are 466 million people with disabling hearing loss.

“Brands talk about inclusivity, but they are completely ignoring an entire population within this world,” Lawrence explains. Which is why she made fixing it her priority. This year, she ensured Tide’s Super Bowl spot would be inclusive for blind and visually impaired viewers.

Presently, accessibility measures for the hearing-impaired are far more advanced than those for the visually impaired. From a technical standpoint, making ads accessible for the blind and visually impaired through descriptive video (DVS) is less straightforward than applying closed captions.

“Captioning is generally a lot further on its development than audio description,“ points out the ASA’s media and public affairs manager Matt Wilson. “There are several technical obstacles around the delivery of audio description in advertising. Such as layering an extra audio track or fitting all the words into 15-seconds, so that you can tell the story of the ad without interrupting or making the existing voiceover incoherent.“

While brands from P&G to Microsoft and eBay to Amazon have been working to make their ads more accessible, their efforts are just a drop in the ocean. “There is progress, but much more is needed,” asserts Sonali Rai, broadcaster relationship and AD technology manager at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), on the progress that has already been made to make advertising more inclusive for blind and visually impaired consumers.

“What we are seeing at the moment are brands reacting to campaigns being led by people with sight loss and user organisations asking for content to be made accessible.”

While it has been four years since Lawrence convinced her boss at Tylie ad production to branch out into the DVS space, the team is still the only ones in the US making ads accessible for the visually impaired.

While she says there has been obvious client interest, it has been tough to convince creatives to forego their creative ideas to make their work easily transferable for audio description. “Some clients will say ’we love it, we absolutely have to do this.’ But then they take it to their creative teams, who have put together this whole idea and story, and they don’t want to mess with it.

“They say, what do you mean you’re going to add another audio track? We just spent a million dollars creating this beautiful commercial, and you’re going to do what to it?“

Which is why it’s important to start with DVS in mind. Wilson says advertisers should take care to avoid providing unnecessary detail at the expense of material information. But, he notes “that’s not easy.“

While Tylie Ad Solutions is working to get as many brands on board, Lawrence admits that to make any real progress, it needs to be mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“Just like closed captioning, if it’s not mandated, there will always be reasons why people won't do it," she says. “To ultimately have, let’s say 100% or even 80% or 90% of [with audio description], it has to be a mandate. However, we’re going to keep pushing and talking and making it a big splash and awareness.“

Which is why P&G’s decision to amplify DVS at the Super Bowl is such an accessibility milestone as it draws attention to an issue that people would otherwise be ignorant on.

“While most of our day-to-day TV commercials are being audio described, we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to DVS a spot for a large-scale event,” explains Paul Chick, director of advertising production in P&G’s Brand Building Integrated Communications (BBIC) group, on P&G’s Super Bowl decision.

“This year we started our work early to plan to have any P&G ads that could be audio described and completed for this Super Bowl.“

“This is an exciting and proud moment for us and another step toward our aspiration to create a company and a world where equality and inclusion are achievable for all,“ explains P&G’s global accessibility leader, Sam Latif.

“We have still ways to go, but it is an incredible time for accessibility and inclusion as businesses are beginning to realize that inclusion results in business growth.“

“It’s been a great start but we have a long way to go to comfortably state that TV advertising is inclusive and accessible for people with sight and or hearing loss,“ insists RNIB’s Rai.

Currently, there are less than 20 brands using DVS for their TV ads in the UK. However, while we’re still a long way off advertising being accessible for all, with the likes of P&G and Tylie using the Super Bowl for exposure, there is hope that more brands will add to the momentum.

“We want to reach a point in time where such campaigns are not needed because accessibility is one of the qualifying criteria,” explains Rai.

“And no ad is approved unless it is accessible for people with sight and hearing loss. Where it is made accessible retrospectively through the addition of audio description and captions or through integrating accessibility into the creative narrative.”

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