Opinion

John Lewis, ‘give a little love’ to your deaf customers this Christmas

In combining subtitles with audio description for its Christmas ad, John Lewis & Partners mix up their merry message and make it inaccessible for deaf audiences.

Rejoice, for the pinnacle of festive capitalism has arrived. This week saw the release of the annual Christmas advert from retail brand John Lewis and Partners, complete with the singer-songwriter Celeste vocalising a plea to ‘give a little love’.

Unfortunately, John Lewis’ deaf customers are far from feeling the love right now.

It began with a tweet on Friday, where user Oliver Richardson asked the company if their animated advert would be subtitled for deaf and hard of hearing customers.

John Lewis’ response, however, was unfortunate, instead directing Oliver to the audio described version of the advert, which provides access to blind and visually impaired viewers, not deaf people – for reasons which should be apparent.

It’s the equivalent of asking a deaf person if they read Braille, and that conflation between deafness and blindness has, shockingly, happened many times before. People still confuse the two conditions, and the needs of those with them. This should not be happening, and John Lewis’ decision to lump the audio described and subtitled versions together – shown above – isn’t helping.

As another Twitter user pointed out after sharing my response to the company’s initial tweet, the advert was indeed subtitled, albeit in the same version as the one with audio description. Aside from the aforementioned risk of causing confusion between the two disabilities, it is also a logistical nightmare.

“I’m happy to hear other people’s views on this,” I write in a follow-up tweet, “but if captions are describing sound from the video, and the http://description is on top, I’d find that distracting.

“My girlfriend has also made the important point that it would probably be overwhelming for autistic people and those with [Auditory Processing Disorder].”

It’s an issue confirmed by Sam Lee on Twitter, who’s autistic and has APD. “Who does this serve,” he asks. “Do they not know residual hearing is a thing?”

Residual hearing, for those unaware, refers to a person’s natural hearing, aside from their deafness (for example, my mild deafness means I can still hear most things). Far too often, there is an assumption that if someone is deaf, then they have lost all of their hearing. This is rare.

In my case, subtitles on a video accommodate for the words my hearing aids fail to pick up. They help to give meaning to the sounds I hear but cannot make out, so when audio description is also interspersed with the music from the advert, then the clip becomes hard to follow, or at worst, completely overwhelming.

Let’s also be clear that subtitling lyrics for a song in a commercial isn’t for some trivial purpose – we’re not having a karaoke session, Karen.

We’re also talking about an advert known for its music every year, where a modern artist pulls out the piano and revives a classic. I also don’t need to have a degree in marketing to tell you that the song used in an ad plays a big part in its messaging and tone. Everyone should be accessing the same message a brand is trying to convey, and that includes in the music they’ve chosen, too.

It’s one thing sharing inaccessible content, and another making it some kind of tick box exercise, but there is also one other accessibility faux pas: trying to meet the needs of every disabled person without realising that some needs from different communities may conflict with one another.

There is, of course, a solution. In separating out the subtitles from the audio description, one would not only be eliminating the risk of confusing deafness and blindness, but respecting the different requirements from these two groups.

‘Respect’ being the key word there, as that’s what comes with good accessibility. It’s also a key part of love, too.

So, if John Lewis want to spread the message of ‘giving a little love’, then they must make sure that everyone is able to access it.


Update: In a response to Liam O’Dell on Twitter, John Lewis & Partners apologised for signposting the audio described version of their advert to deaf viewers and said: “Accessibility and inclusion are really important to us and we’re working hard to make sure that all of our ad campaigns can be accessible to all of our customers.

“Our ad is available on YouTube with subtitles at the viewer’s request […] We always appreciate feedback to ensure we can improve so please let us know if there is anything we can do to make our ads more accessible.”

They also linked to the original advert on YouTube, where subtitles can be turned on by selecting the captions icon.

It is not known when the captions were made available on the YouTube video after the ad went live on Thursday.


Photo credit: John Lewis and Partners.

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