Advertising to the visually and hearing impaired

A recent ad by the agency Droga5 for Amazon Alexa has a character who is hard of hearing – she says so herself, to the characters in the film within the ad film.

That helps the ad’s narrative plug the voice-recognition capabilities of Alexa in invoking the subtitles for what she is watching. Not just the subtitles for the spoken words, but also the music-related description. There’s a nice, funny gag on the characters of the film inside the ad film arguing about ‘tense’ and ‘suspenseful’, but the larger point is made very well – that Alexa helps you invoke subtitles by simply asking for it.

The part about a hard-of-hearing viewer is very interesting, though. Can a hard-of-hearing viewer watch this ad and understand it? Sure, she can, since the subtitles appear as part of the script, mid-way through the ad.

But can a hard-of-hearing viewer watch any other ad on TV and understand it? Do ads even have subtitles when you are not watching it on YouTube and enable the occasional in-built subtitles or the YouTube-generated subtitles?

How about a visually impaired viewer? Can they watch TV ads and understand what’s going on?

For context, there are about 430 million people with disabling hearing loss, and about 350 million blind or visually impaired people globally!

These are massive numbers. And yet, while TV shows on OTT have made attempts to include them as audiences, the advertising world seems to have not made adequate progress on this front.

Most OTT platforms include DVS (Descriptive Video Service) which makes visual media, such as TV programs or feature films more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired by adding a special audio track that includes extra descriptions of what is happening on screen.

Few brands have considered the needs of the visually or hearing impaired for their advertising as Apple and P&G.

Apple is a product company that also consciously created product and software features that benefit people with visual or hearing impairment.

In fact, Apple has advertised specifically to the visually impaired, on how their products are being used by visually impaired users.

And here’s an Apple ad that demonstrates the accessibility features of the iPhone:

Apple was cognizant of this when it launched the Apple TV+ show called ‘See’ starring Jason Momoa. The show is set on a futuristic Earth where humanity has lost the sense of sight completely and has since found newer ways to socially interact, build, hunt, and survive without vision! Since the show is about characters (and a world) without vision, Apple launched 2 versions of the trailer – a normal trailer and another with audio descriptions. The former has 34 million views while the other has 180K views, but this ratio seems understandable and is not the point.

P&G too has consistently produced versions of its ads with audio descriptions.

One of the earliest TV ads in the UK that ran with audio description was this Flash ad by P&G:

Other P&G ads:

Other brands seem to be catching up too – here’s the 2020 Christmas ad by Waitrose & Partners, with audio descriptions.

Budweiser:

Subaru:

Microsoft:

I’m not sure about the media buying aspects of these ads, however. Would they be added to the ad inventory and interspersed with ads that don’t have DVS? I assume that people who are privileged with normal hearing and vision may find the extra audio description distracting, annoying, or both. Is that the reason why brands don’t include DVS to help visually impaired audiences understand the ads? I don’t know.

However, SAP (Secondary Audio Programming) on TVs could hold the key to this, as I understand. SAP is also used to include other language audio tracks beside the primary language of the programming, and hence it is also used for the visually impaired.

But even this is a good start.

To a large extent, addressing the needs of those with hearing impairment is easier and more common – closed captions (which are different from mere subtitles that assume the viewer hears the audio and hence include a description of background sounds and speaker changes). OTT platforms like Netflix have done extensive work in this space, though brands and agencies need to do a lot more for TV advertising.

Where brands and agencies need to start from scratch is to include visually impaired viewers.

Consider this new Mastercard ad by McCann New York. It starts with the disclosure that it was specially designed with an audio description. Why? Because it is pitching a product specially meant for people with visual impairment!

But what of Mastercard’s other ads that are not specially designed for people with visual impairment? Or, consider the other quandary – can people with hearing impairment understand the same ad while watching it on TV? (if they watch it on YouTube, they can enable subtitles, of course)

Beyond advertising, even the gaming world is trying baby steps in including gamers with hearing impairment (pegged at more than 300 million, at the start of the video below).

Pilsen Callao, the Peruvian beer brand, recently launched a sign language bot inside Discord for gamers with hearing impairment to chat with their fellow players!

In India, Zee Cinema made news for premiering Dangal with audio descriptions and closed captions, in 2017.

But I don’t think an Indian brand has taken the effort either educate their audience (and the industry) about the need to also include people with hearing loss and/or visual impairment or create versions of their television ads that include closed-caption and/or audio description (even if it is done in the online version).

This is an opportunity waiting to be explored by Indian companies/brands. The first one to do so would definitely make news and deservedly so.

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