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Making TV ads accessible for people with sight loss

On UK television, about a quarter of programming is delivered with audio description.

Most dramas are routinely described and so are documentaries such as Blue Planet and reality shows such as Goggle Box. Films, too. The list is long. The broadcasters, RNIB and other sight loss charities and the regulator, receive hundreds of emails and calls each year from users who want more content with description across platforms and devices. Over the past few years, the provision has extended beyond linear television and audio description is now available on most broadcaster led-catch up services including the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4 and My5.

However, it is not just about the content. RNIB has worked with TV manufacturers to make the hardware accessible too. This includes switching audio description on by pressing a button on the remote or through an app, identifying content that is described and in a selection of devices, personalising the experience. For example, changing the volume of the audio description track in relation to the dialogues or the voiceover.

The one area which has not seen much development and continues to break the experience for someone who uses this access feature is the ads. There are exceptions, of course. Ads from eBay, Specsavers, Amazon among a few others are regularly made accessible for broadcast TV. In 2019, John Lewis, Tesco and MandS took the plunge and described their Christmas ads. Virgin Media described its switch to super campaign in 2019. Yes, the one with Usain Bolt! 

Still, the list of accessible ads is short. 

How blind and partially sighted people feel about TV ads

Watch our video to find out how people with sight loss feel about TV advertising that isn't audio described.

Focus Groups: viewer feedback on accessible ads

Following RNIB’s campaign in 2019, six brands added AD to their Christmas ads to make them accessible for people with sight loss. In 2020, the number grew to 12. Given the growing interest in this area, it is important to evaluate if the measures taken so far have improved the viewing experience for people with sight loss and for this reason, RNIB has organised a series of focus groups this year. 

A focus group conducted in January 2021 assessed the accessibility of Christmas ads from 2020.

Making ads accessible for people with sight loss by adding audio description

In 2017, Proctor and Gamble made a splash by announcing that all its ads would be made accessible for people with sight loss and since then, it has achieved this by adding audio description. 

Audio description is a secondary audio track that has information on those on-screen elements that do not have an audio clue. It fits in-between the dialogues or the voiceover and is only discernible if the viewer has audio description switched-on. 

The track is produced retrospectively and generally, by a professional describer. UK has a flourishing industry of audio description providers who have had many years of describing not just content for TV but cinemas, theatres, museums and all sorts of other audio-visual content.

Audio Description is not expensive to produce (it’s an audio track!) and since most broadcasters, including ITV and Channel 4, have already adapted their playout systems to support the delivery of Audio Description on commercials, delivery to viewers is straightforward.  

There is one barrier, though. The Advertising Standards Authority requires that if an ad is audio described then all text on-screen must be included in the audio description. Disclaimers, discounts, offers, etc. Everything. This is a problem especially in cases where there are long disclaimers.

Making ads accessible for people with sight loss without audio description

Integrating accessibility into the structure of the ad eliminates the need for audio description. This can be generally be achieved by voicing key information and the hierarchy of information will depend on the product being advertised and the time available. Certain elements such as the brand name and the product being advertised are absolutely key for blind and partially sighted viewers just as they are for sighted viewers and must not be compromised. This would allow viewers to explore the product being advertised in greater detail through their preferred source, if required. 

It would be even better if other on-screen elements could also be indicated in audio whether it is through voiceover or adding foley and other effects. Remember, if sighted people can hear the footsteps then blind people can too! 


Watching ads with audio description

TV: UK TV industry has worked hard to get everything in place to deliver audio description on TV commercials

Cinemas: Most UK cinemas regularly deliver audio description on all their screenings. People with sight loss listen to the description through the infra-red headset that they pick up from the box office. 

Online: If the player does not support multiple audio tracks then the easiest way is to make a version of the ad available on YouTube and indicate on the webpage with the original ad where people can watch the version with audio description.

Please email [email protected] if you wish to discuss this further.