Companies are trying to be more inclusive when it comes to branding and ad campaigns. Every year Gerber chooses a "spokesbaby" based on an online photo contest.
This year's winner is a little boy from Georgia named Lucas Warren. Lucas has Down Syndrome, and is the first child featured by Gerber with the condition. He won out 140,000 other contestants.
His parents will receive $50,000 as the grand prize.
Good Housekeeping reports that Bill Partyka, president and CEO of Gerber, announced Lucas's win as the next step in a chain of Gerber baby representation.
"Lucas' winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts this year," said Partyka. "Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber's longstanding heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby."
Lucas's parents Jason and Cortney, say they submitted Lucas's picture on a whim, but they hope that the experience will help inspire other kids like him.
"We want him to be a role model to others," Jason says. "We want everybody to think, 'Hey, Lucas has Down syndrome, what can I do?' We hope it snowballs from there."
People do seem inspired by Lucas and his family:
I find this absolutely amazing! Especially since my Aunt has Downs and she has been such a blessing to our family! She's 52 and still winning medals in the Special Olympics. She's smart and has such a beautiful soul! ❤️— Monica Mele-Holman (@Munchie011) February 7, 2018
My brother will be 32 Saturday and has Down Syndrome. Loved seeing beautiful baby Lucas become the next #gerberbaby on @TODAYshow !! Seeing the acceptance and love for those with DS grow from where it was 32 years ago makes my heart so incredibly happy!!! 💙💛 #DownSyndrome https://t.co/wYOBto2JnH— nιcσℓє cαяσℓιnє (@nikgenovese) February 7, 2018
But there is a very dark side to this win. Business Insider reports that the company has been slammed for being opportunistic in using Lucas as a face for their brand, because their life insurance company, Gerber Life, has allegedly denied coverage to babies born with Down Syndrome. A number of people have tweeted about their experience of being denied coverage:
@GerberLife I am a bit perplexed and may be in need of some explanation. Nine years ago our family..my son...was denied Gerber life because he has Down Syndrome. Now a child with Down Syndrome is recognized as the new Gerber face. So has your policy changed as well? Love to know.— Bronx137 (@Robster151) February 7, 2018
We were denied a Gerber life insurance policy for my son who has Down Syndrome. He’ll be 13 in June.— Anjennette (@ASquisheeee1) February 7, 2018
That was what I thought when I saw this. I’m happy to see people with DS in the mainstream media, but sometimes it just feels like they are being exploited. I hope Gerber has changed their life insurance policy since my son was an infant.— Anjennette (@ASquisheeee1) February 8, 2018
Too bad Gerber Life insurance turns down individuals with DS due to “shorter life expectancy”— Don (@DonnyR1977) February 7, 2018
@GerberLife so awesome to see a baby with Down syndrome as the new Gerber Baby. It would now be awesome to see Gerber Life provide life insurance to babies with Ds. When Shane and Wyatt were born they were denied life insurance because they were born with Down syndrome— Eric Waksmunski (@Ericwaxy) February 7, 2018
According to Business Insider, Gerber Life is a "financially separate affiliate" from Gerber, though the two have almost identical branding and are clearly linked in people's minds. They denied in an email that they categorically refuse to cover children with Down Syndrome, saying they review these children on a case by case basis.
But many parents say they were denied or told to reapply after the child turned five.
It's an interesting conversation to have during a time when many companies are making gestures towards inclusion. But consumers want more than gestures, they want real change. If you are going to use children with Down Syndrome to send a message about inclusion, consider how you can prioritize their health and wellbeing in a real way.
But none of that rests on Lucas's shoulders. It's also hard to know what responsibility his parents have to speak to the issue. They possibly can't, if they've signed a contract with Gerber. Their primary focus seems to be Lucas and encouraging him in life.
Jason told Good Housekeeping, "When he grows up and we can teach him and show him all he did over the next year, I hope that it gives him confidence. He can do anything he wants."
And perhaps Lucas's case will bring attention to more than representation in media, but to real issues effecting the life and care for children with Down Syndrome everywhere.