Opinion: Specsavers' Priceless Eyes ad is an insult to blind people

A screenshot of a woman from the 'Priceless Eyes' ad.
A screenshot from the 'Priceless Eyes' ad. Photo credit: Specsavers

OPINION: On September 10, optician Specsavers launched the Priceless Eyes Project in a bid to instil into the New Zealand and Australian public the importance of seeking out preventative eye health measures.

While encouraging people to take care of their eye health is important, Specsavers has chosen an angle that sacrifices the dignity of blind and vision impaired people in the process.

Created in conjunction with Australian independent media and creative advertising agency Cummins&Partners, its advertisement video depicts a fake medical research company called Vesper-Sacs.

The company pops a strange question to everyday people: "How much would you sell your eyes for?"

It is a question designed to provoke an emotive response, which it does.

"The thought of like, never seeing my partner's face again," one person responds tearfully.

"I've got a family," implores a mother.

"I need to be able to see my kids dance. My boys play soccer."

I have empathy for the advertisement's unsuspecting subjects who, in that moment, are hardly able to dispel the narrative of a miserable life without sight the ad compels them to buy into.

No doubt the message will give people cause to reconsider the value of their eye health.

However, the value of the lives of those of us whose eyes don't work, or don't work optimally, is needlessly sacrificed in the process.

Campaign Brief reports that Specsavers marketing director Sarah McInnes says: "No one should suffer from avoidable vision loss and blindness in New Zealand."

Preventing avoidable vision loss is a worthy cause indeed, but framing it as a problem causing suffering is harmful and misguided.

If you lose a significant proportion of your sight, it will no doubt be an overwhelming and perhaps traumatic experience in the beginning.

I am not minimising the extent of the adjustments in anyone's life, including mental and emotional, as a result, and I would encourage anyone affected to reach out to the Blind Foundation for support.

I am stating the Specsavers Priceless Eyes Project paints a miserable picture of life without sight, which serves no one.

It does a disservice to those losing their sight, whose bleak future, in this frame, consists merely of everything they cannot see.

It also does a disservice to those of us, like me, who never had sight in the first place.

Blind people's lives are as rich, complex and varied as sighted people's.

The aspect that commonly makes our lives more challenging is not the sheer fact of our eyes not working as they should.

It is, rather, the fact that all too often, our transport systems, our buildings, our learning environments, our workplaces, our websites and documents and more, are not optimally accessible for vision impaired and blind people.

It is this, in combination with the perceived limitations imposed onto us by sighted people, that can make our lives trying indeed.

Sometimes we internalise those limitations. People losing their sight for the first time are especially prone to doing so.

It's a mindset that the Priceless Eyes ad unflinchingly, unapologetically perpetuates.

It is also a critical reason why it is incumbent upon Specsavers to involve blind and vision impaired people in the design of their eye health project narratives.

Other blind and vision impaired people have also publicly criticised the advertisement.

A blind woman by the Facebook name of Katie Kato wrote a lengthy post on Specsavers Australia's timeline, attracting numerous comments of agreement.

She stated she was "absolutely appalled" by the advert.

"I want you to seriously consider the impact of this advert on people who are blind and vision impaired and the broader community," she wrote.

Specsavers Australia responded: "We agree with you that everyone in the community including those who are blind or who have a vision impairment of some kind can live full and happy lives. We would never suggest otherwise. ... Once again, we apologise that we have upset you."

Being sorry does not undo the stigmatisation and tragic portrayals of life without sight that the video conveys every single time an unsuspecting sighted person watches it.

A real apology involves admitting that these misguided portrayals are firmly and undeniably embedded in the Priceless Eyes Project narrative, admitting it was a mistake to frame eye health in this way, and renaming and reframing the entire Project accordingly.

Specsavers owes it to the dignity of vision impaired and blind people, past, present and future.

Specsavers was approached for comment on this article but did not respond in time.

Áine Kelly-Costello is a blind digital news producer interning at Newshub.