In February, Gerber named its 2018 “spokesbaby“: Lucas, from Dalton, Georgia. Lucas has Down syndrome, and his mother is hoping his role will spread awareness about what she refers to as “special needs” children and their ability to thrive in a supportive community. Lucas joins a growing list of children and young adults with Down syndrome who have become ambassadors for brands, like the widely booked Australian model Madeline Stuart, Ryan Langston for Target, and Lili Boglarka Havasi for Fisher-Price. In the process, he’s sparking a necessary conversation about how corporations are using people with Down syndrome for public relations, and how to hold corporations accountable to their stated values of diversity and inclusion.
Many in the Down syndrome advocacy community—which is heavily slanted towards nondisabled parents, rather than actual people with Down syndrome—are excited to see Lucas representing Gerber. And much of the coverage seems to reduce Lucas to an abstract “inspiration” rather than a human being. “People are overjoyed,” as BuzzFeed put it in a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy article that mirrors other coverage of Gerber’s move, like a feature on past spokesbabies wishing Lucas well from People. Meanwhile, the anti-choice brigade is delighted, coopting Gerber’s decision in order to peddle anti-abortion propaganda.
At a time when many of us are calling for increased representation and greater diversity in media, seeing a disabled person honored by one of the most famous names in baby food seems like it should be a win. Gerber is reminding consumers that disabled children exist, and they also need food! And showing that disabled children can be happy and fulfilled, living active lives, is a great message to send. Disabled people in general can benefit from seeing themselves represented in media; the experience of never encountering people who look like you can be alienating and isolating, leading people from historically marginalized groups to feel like they aren’t part of society. For children in particular, diverse, positive representation allows them to see that they aren’t alone, as the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag on Twitter illustrated. Nondisabled parents of disabled children who feel isolated, don’t have support, and worry about their children’s future can also feel more connected to society by seeing children who look like theirs being treated like nondisabled children as equal participants in public life.
But representation can be a double-edged sword. Lucas is already being used to advance an anti-choice agenda by people who perpetuate myths about Down syndrome and abortion, even though he’s just a baby and his lived experience shouldn’t be used to advance ideological attitudes—on any point of the spectrum. We also don’t know how Lucas’ parents feel about these issues, or how Lucas might feel when he’s older.
It’s also telling that Down syndrome in particular tends to be a common stand-in for “disability” when it comes to depicting disabled children. This genetic disability is heavily associated with innocent, “childlike” imagery, which deprives adults with Down syndrome of autonomy. The fact that the majority of these models are white, too, frames disability as a white experience even though people of color are actually more likely to be disabled. Congenital disabilities and the people who have them are incredibly diverse, and showing a broader spectrum of disabled childhoods could be empowering for children and informative for adults. Cynical choices like selecting a model with a disability associated with innocence, sweetness, and naiveté rather than a child with a lesser-known, or more stigmatized, disability—like a marked facial difference that makes people uncomfortable—can factor into decisions about which disabilities to represent. This, in turn, can do an ultimate disservice to the disability community.
And focusing solely on representation can miss a larger part of the picture: corporate accountability. Gerber’s parent company, Nestlé, also owns Gerber Life Insurance—which declines to extend coverage to babies with Down syndrome, according to parents, though Nestlé denies that Down syndrome is used as an exclusion. Gerber isn’t responsible for policies at Gerber Life, but it’s not a very good look when the two companies share a name and branding. Parents are rightly curious to know why Gerber is comfortable using a baby with Down syndrome as a spokesbaby, but not providing the vital social supports that disabled children need to thrive, especially given the high cost of raising a disabled child. The $50,000 Lucas will receive for his role will cover only a fraction of his educational, social, and medical needs. Genetic disabilities like Down syndrome can condemn people to a lifetime of both cultural and bureaucratic discrimination, as Gerber Life is helpfully demonstrating. Representation is not enough to overcome societal barriers.
Parent company Nestlé has a lot to answer for too. It has been subject to boycotts since the 1970s over its ethical practices. The origins of the original Nestlé boycott lie in the company’s baby formula marketing, which critics argued crossed the line by encouraging parents in developing nations to use formula instead of breastfeeding, and making them dependent on costly formula products. The company has repeatedly been faulted for using enslaved people and forced labor—including child labor—in its supply chain, and for sucking aquifers dry, even during droughts. Holding a contest and celebration to pick a “spokesbaby” every year deflects from these conversations, creating buzz and excitement and building up Gerber as a trusted name in infant and child wellness—and the big splash created by the choice of a disabled baby is a nice boost for Gerber.
Gerber and Nestlé, of course, are not the only companies who leverage disabled people for public relations while denying services in their daily course of business. Uber got lots of good press for its “Uber Assist” product for disabled passengers, for example, while still being subject to a slew of disability discrimination lawsuits, like this one involving passengers who use wheelchairs. Walgreens was praised for including a child with Down syndrome in store advertising, but the same company once fired a diabetic employee for eating a $1.39 bag of chips during a hypoglycemic attack. Delta praises itself for a “culture of inclusion,” while continuing to break customers’ wheelchairs.
Conversations about diversity and inclusion are complex. It’s important to identify tokenism when it’s used to sweep larger issues under the carpet, whether they be a history of disability discrimination complaints or something else. And the conversation shouldn’t stop there: It also provides an opportunity to discuss what full inclusion might look like, and how companies like Gerber could push for greater diversity without being accused of cynicism.
A broader, and more intersectional, expression of diversity is key. Across the company’s public face, it should be thinking about who it chooses as visible representatives, and how that reflects on the company as a whole, as well as its target market. Inclusionary advertising is more than a PR move: It can also increase a company’s customer base.
That public commitment must be backed with work behind the scenes, though, like eliminating child, forced, and enslaved labor from the Nestlé supply chain; providing health coverage to all Nestlé workers; offering paid parental leave so farm workers and other people who make Nestlé into a multinational giant get to spend time with their children; complying with food labeling laws; and addressing lack of internal diversity and inclusion. Nestlé could also take a stance against subminimum wage and other wage discrimination that targets the disability community, including people with Down syndrome, who may be paid pennies on the dollar in repetitive “sheltered workshop” environments that provide little enrichment.
And, in a world where corporate money plays a heavy role in politics, some of those baby-food profits could fund efforts to pressure Congress to improve access to health care and uphold disability civil rights, like those enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, currently under attack on Capitol Hill. As a company interested in early childhood development, Nestlé might also concern itself with threats to disability education, like Betsy DeVos’ push for more charter schools, or cuts to SNAP and other social services that support disabled children.
An announcement like this one could have been paired with a discussion of moves happening on the corporate level to ensure that people like Lucas can grow up to lead better, fuller lives in a society that explicitly includes them. Nestlé has tremendous market power and clout, and this is an opportunity to use it.