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Did Toyota Fumble the Ball with its Adoption-themed Super Bowl Ad?

Adoptionland social media sites have been ablaze with comments following Toyota’s Super Bowl advertisement featuring Paralympic swimming multi-gold and silver medalist Jessica Long, who was adopted from a Siberian orphanage with a congenital condition called fibular hemimelia in her lower legs that would require amputation of both limbs and fitting for prostheses at 18 months old.

The piece opens with a striking image of Jessica floating in water, with partial limbs in full view. In a graphically gorgeous sequence, she swims through a pictorial slideshow of her life, as her adoptive mother recounts the phone call in which she learned from an unidentified go-between, presumably an agency social worker, that “We found a baby girl for your adoption.” Her mother’s heartstring-plucking response is the stuff that inspires Hallmark Channel movies.

The ad ends with the words, “We believe that hope and strength lie in all of us.” And Toyota mentions that it is a proud sponsor of the US Olympic Team.

What’s not to love about a beautiful story of overcoming adversity, aided by loving parents, and excelling in an environment in which one’s physical challenges are all but irrelevant?

According to a tidal wave of comments on Facebook and Twitter, plenty.

Adoptees who teach university-level media courses, have worked in advertising, and are highly regarded therapists had a strong reaction to the ad, pointing out an unfortunate pairing of selling cars and selling children internationally. Words like ableism, saviorism, Western exceptionalism, virtue signaling, and the Americanization of intercountry adoption narratives appeared in various posts. Professionals separated Jessica’s compelling story from the commercial, analyzing the mythology and perceived intentional messaging behind the piece.

How could Toyota have failed, in a 60 second commercial, to have captured the realities of similar situations faced by those who end up in orphanages worldwide? What about the trauma and loss? Wouldn’t this give America yet another fairy-tale picture of the beauty of adoption, and false hope that, if you adopt, your little girl might grow up to be a Jessica Long or a Simone Biles?

How could the ad’s creators have failed to even let the adoptee say a word, while placing the entire focus on the adoptive mother’s narrative about how someone had found a baby for her?

Hundreds of less erudite comments revealed a visceral reaction from triggered adoptees and birth parents, at least one of whom said that she is getting rid of her Toyota because of the ad.

Further research into the backstory published in “The Siberian Times” and NBC Sports revealed that Jessica, originally named Tatiana by her teenage parents, arrived at the orphanage under duress and may not have been legally relinquished. Her first mother, located by a Russian news reporter after Jessica’s story went global in 2012, has stated that she was under the impression from orphanage officials that they could come back and claim Tatiana at some point in the future. And then, without notice or consent, Tatiana was in the United States, fulfilling another woman’s dreams of motherhood.

As this news spread, cries of outrage became even more strident. People were trying to contact Toyota to lodge protests, without much success.

I must confess that my initial reaction to the ad was mixed, to say the least. It left me moved, triggered and confused. So much came at me in that one minute, I wasn’t sure how to process all of it. I found it inspiring but still, like others, something about it didn’t land quite right.

As I read through both thoughtful and over-the-top comments, I gained more clarity and insight (thank you, friends!), but they also raised more questions. Isn’t Jessica an adult? Didn’t she sign a contract with Toyota and voluntarily participate in the advertisement? Isn’t it safe to assume that she is pleased with the content of the ad, and the way it depicts her story? The ad is in the public forum, and people need no permission to analyze and critique it, but has Jessica/Tatiana consented to being made a symbol of potentially unethical international adoption? Does Toyota have an obligation to present every nuance of the spectrum of life experiences and social injustices faced by international adoptees and amputees in a 60 second feel-good commercial at the Super Bowl? Even though Jessica spoke no lines, doesn’t the metaphor and striking image of her swimming through daunting life challenges elevate her voice in an even more powerful way? Is anyone talking about the fate of children, girls in particular, who age out of Russian orphanages with only a tiny stipend to get them started in a very difficult life? Does anyone ever get a pass for making hard, if not impossible choices during a difficult time?

If, as news reports indicate, Jessica/Tatiana and her families appear to be generally at peace with how things have worked out in the long term, is it appropriate to project the pain, angst and outrage of other stories onto theirs? Can we have at least one adoption story with a more or less happy ending?

Maybe I’m sick of outrage and being offended by everything adoption-related. Maybe, as one of my ivory tower adoptee friends likes to point out, I’m not grasping all the deeper implications (or maybe, unlike me, he has never personally visited a Russian orphanage and met a group of children, any of whom would have come back to America with him in a heartbeat). Maybe I just needed to see some happiness and inspiration during this time of emotional overload.

Or maybe, just maybe, Toyota created a beautiful, if uninformed, advertisement with a simple message printed on screen at the end of the ad: “We believe hope and strength lie in all of us.”

Jessica's motto is, "The only disability in life is a negative attitude." I can learn from that, too. As an adoptee and former swimmer, I see you, Jessica. I, for one, heard your voice loud and clear, and I’m taking Toyota's message at face value on this one. Hope and strength do lie within all of us, and right now, we all need every ounce we can muster.


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