Citi’s ‘okay to stare’ vs. ‘don’t stare’

Citi is the global partner of the IPC (International Paralympic Committee). Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Citi and its agency Publicis North America have launched a new campaign to highlight the athletic achievements of Paralympians and change the public’s general perception of people with disabilities.

The campaign’s theme, which inverts the common and rude social behavior of staring at people with disabilities, is provocative and arresting: “It’s okay, you can stare”.

The visual device is to showcase the athletes engaged in some seriously impressive action and add a second line after that provocative headline to offer a compelling reason to stare – that is, not to stare at the disability, but the talent and achievement.

As an attention-seeking device, the visual and headline work brilliantly.

Manasi Joshi, Indian para-badminton player, the current World Champion is also part of this campaign!

I do have a couple of alternative perspectives on this campaign’s device, though.

  1. Permission to stare

The athletes that have agreed to participate in this campaign have consented (via Citi, the agency) to go with the line, “It’s okay, you can stare”. They have shared their part of the campaign on their social media handles too indicating that they are okay with the staring because the larger context is that they are allowing the staring because of the implied assumption that it is for their athletic achievements.

Now, I cannot even begin to understand what would go through the mind of a disabled/differently-abled person, but the basic question I have, out of curiosity is this: An achiever, that too in the field of athletics, could consent to be stared at because of their achievement. How would it work for non-athletes/normal people who are disabled?

The bottomline is that it is NOT okay to stare at someone who is disabled, whether they are an achiever or not. That is the larger lesson in social and civil etiquette we teach our children as they grow up. It is human nature to gawk at something that seems different/out-of-the-ordinary, but we (parents, I mean) guide our children, while they stare, to not do that and explain the context of not making the other person uncomfortable for simply being them. And to look beyond their disability as a normal person and consciously ignore the differences between us which hardly needs attention.

I do understand that the campaign’s precise creative device is just that – to flip the established social action to provoke people into noticing the larger message. While that works brilliantly for disabled achievers, it obviously may not apply to those who don’t have equally stunning achievements (in any field, not just athletics/sports). They probably continue to be stared at, making them abjectly uncomfortable.

Does this campaign, given the amount of media spend by Citi and tying it with the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, contain the potential danger of undoing years of progress made (however much/however slow) in the society away from asking people not to stare at people with disabilities?

  1. On the act of staring

I have read multiple perspectives on the very act of staring itself, interestingly.

There is a large movement called ‘Don’t Stare, Ask’ that dissuades people from staring and starting a conversation instead, to understand the nature of disability better and educate oneself in the process.

Beyond physical disability, autism, as a topic, uses this line too.

There are quite a few perspectives by people who are disabled, where they take all the staring in their stride and ask others like them to be nonchalant about it.

A really interesting counterpoint to the ‘staring’ debate is that staring at least ensures that they are being noticed (with a wrong tone, if we may add), but not staring, as a habit, is likely to make the disabled people ‘invisible’!

As I had mentioned earlier in this post, I cannot even begin to understand the sentiments involved, and only they can explain what is appropriate and what is not. And I also realize that there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to this either – it may vary from person to person depending on their worldview and personal experiences.

At the very least, the new Citi campaign is likely to evoke a conversation around the staring behavior and that, in itself, is a good sign.

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