Zuma Juice sells a powder that, when combined with cold water, becomes a "green juice that you can drink any time." Zuma is a new player in the massive powdered drinks market; founded just last January, the company has already entered a growing niche of nutritional beverages that you can order by mail. The company's most recent advertisement featured three women: a perky hyper-enthusiastic spokeswoman, a super-fit woman trying to juice her own fruits and vegetables, and a slovenly woman in a wheelchair who represents perhaps the worst example of disability-related stereotyping I have ever seen in a commercial.
Before Zuma took the ad offline, following online pushback from the disability-rights community, the ad had racked up over 300,000 views across platforms. It's easy to see why it caught on. The lead actress has a zany charm as she uses a katana to slice fruit in half (just like in the Fruit Ninja game), while the second woman makes a horrendous mess as she juices. The third woman, though—a woman in a wheelchair—emerges as the butt of the jokes. As the home-juicer sprays veggie and fruit detritus over her half of the kitchen, the spokeswoman regards the ensuing mess and says, "I'm crazy about my health, but I'm not that crazy. Then again, I'm also not ..." and she cocks her head to the side as the camera pans to her right. A woman in a turquoise leisure suit sits in a power wheelchair. She holds a huge tub of bright orange cheese puffs and a big mug that says "Best soda pop." "What green juice?" she asks. She shovels puffs into her mouth, then takes a suck off the straw. Later in the ad, the woman in the wheelchair and the hyperfit juicer stage a fight over the juice.
This ad trades on two of the most pervasive stereotypes facing disabled folks. First, that their disability is attributable to poor lifestyle choices—i.e. drinking soda and eating junk food. Second, that lots of them are faking and are just lazy. The choices in this ad reflect deeply held stigmas about bodies, health, and disability. As we've reported at Pacific Standard, people working to cut disability benefits tend to blame disabled people for their disabilities, while simultaneously accusing many people receiving those benefits of having perpetrated fraud. Moreover, the belief that lots of people are just pretending to be disabled leads to public accusations and humiliation, even violence.
Too often, companies and even politicians casually stigmatize people with disabilities—often to get a cheap laugh or sell some product or policy.
I reached out to Dominick Evans, a well-known critic of disability portrayals in the media. Over direct message, he tells me that he watched this ad with painful recent experiences in mind because he’s been "fat-shamed this week." He's been working, along with many others, to push back against the proposed GOP cuts to Medicaid. Opponents have told him that he's disabled because he's fat. "They told me I'm in a wheelchair because I'm fat and that they don't want to support Medicaid because they don't want to support my unhealthy lifestyle," he says. Evans has a progressive neuromuscular disability called spinal muscular atrophy, and his weight is just fine, but he tells me that people have trouble seeing past the wheelchair. "That's what these advertisements do," he said. "They have real-world consequences on actually disabled people."
Advertising is a complicated space when it comes to disability. Often, a disabled body is thrown into an ad for no particular reason, just to catch social media attention. Microsoft and Toyota had 2015 Super Bowl ads with disabled people whose narratives had, at most, a distant link to the product being advertised. Swiffer, by contrast, had a terrific ad for the extending hand duster, in which Zack Rukavina, who lost his left arm to cancer, reveals that he's a much better cleaner than his two-armed wife. It's charming, but also sends the message about the way that well-crafted accessible tools enhance the world for everyone. From a representational perspective, these are the messages that the disability community craves.
As outrage over the Zuma ad built, the company doubled down. In a response, provided to me by multiple people via screenshot and confirmed by Zuma representatives, a customer service representative claimed that there was nothing insensitive in the ad, saying that they just wanted to draw a contrast between fit women and people who were "health-unconscious" and had never even heard of juice. The spokesman said they originally planned to use one of the "shopping scooters that are at most large superstores," but instead used a wheelchair provided by the ad agency, which they thought of as pretty much the same thing. They said that it wasn't about disability because: "There are a lot of people out there who use power chairs who don't need them. We do apologize if the advert upset you in anyway, but here at Zuma were are all about inclusivity and positivity."
When I ask Evans about this apology, he says: "It makes me so angry. Our lives are hard enough thanks to the way we are treated as it is. We don't need people trying to justify their prejudice about disabled people."
I spoke at length with two spokespeople for Zuma Juice. Chastened by the mounting pressure from advocates across social media, they stress that the company had no intention of stigmatizing people with disabilities—but that they absolutely want to do better. Without caveats, they tell me, "We did damage and we realize it now." Spokespeople for Zuma say they originally just saw the wheelchair as a motorized shopping cart, rather than a mobility device for disabled people (although carts are, of course, mobility devices). The spokespeople add that they were inspired by the lazy humans in the Pixar movie Wall-E in drawing up the ad (I've since discovered that Wall-E was critiqued for its fat-shaming at the time). The point, then, was to make fun of lazy people who eat too much junk food, and Zuma's misstep emphasizes the difficulty of promoting (or marketing) "health" without being ableist.
There's an irony here. As we've reported, disabled people often have trouble accessing vegetable or fruits, depending on their dietary needs and their general mobility (whether they can peel oranges, cut carrots, etc.). Zuma Juice's fixation on "health" rather than on making fruits and veggies more accessible inadvertently turned off a huge potential market for their product. Still, as I hung up the phone, the spokespeople sounded much more upbeat about what comes next. The ad has been re-edited and re-released without the wheelchair.
In the end, this is just one ad, and I believe Zuma Juice when they express their contrition and chalk the bad ad up to ignorance, rather than malice. Unfortunately, that ignorance is widespread, a symptom of the big problems about how we talk about and represent disability. Companies, organizations, and even politicians too often casually stigmatize people with disabilities—often to get a cheap laugh or sell some product and policy. Internet outrage might be able to get us less stigmatizing juice, but we've a whole lot more work to do to to address the way we talk about health, wheelchairs, and disability.