This inspiring campaign, launched by Channel 4’s in-house creative agency, 4Creative, to advertise the 2016 Rio Paralympics, is an ideal example of marketing that works, developed from a deep understanding of their audience.
In the lead up to the event, having conducted extensive research into athlete perceptions and audience attitudes, the marketing team launched a campaign called ‘Freaks of Nature’, challenging the perceptions of disability in sport, soon to evolve into the follow-up campaign entitled ‘Meet the Superhumans’.
Veering away from convention, the campaign portrayed Paralympians in a new light, as fearless ‘superhumans’ as opposed to people to pity.
Dramatically changing the way their audience viewed disabled athletes, 64% of viewers stated that the Channel 4 coverage had had a favourable impact on their perceptions of people with disabilities, with 82% agreeing that disabled athletes were as talented as their able-bodied counterparts.
Winning a number of national and international awards, the campaign quickly became the second most shared Olympics-related ad of all time on social media.
“One of the main challenges we faced was overcoming the indifference people felt towards the Paralympics”, says 4Creative Business Director, Olivia Browne. “One of the key ingredients to the idea’s success was the single-minded belief that the Paralympics did not have to be second best to the Olympics and could have its own voice, swagger and attitude.”
Client: Channel 4
Award: Black & Yellow Pencil / Film Advertising Crafts / Direction for Film Advertising, 2013
Channel 4's live broadcast of the opening ceremony on the night of August 29 2012 was watched by 11.8 million TV viewers - its largest audience in ten years. The campaign also successfully raised awareness and understanding of disability in sport and helped the London 2012 Paralympics become the first Paralympic Games to sell out.
When Channel 4 became official broadcaster of the Paralympics, just 14% of the population said they were looking forward to the event. By the time the event closed, 64%* of the population agreed that the Paralympics were as good as the Olympics - a figure that rose to 79% among those who had watched Channel 4's Paralympics coverage. Meanwhile, 69%* of viewers said it was the first time they had made the effort to watch the Paralympics.
Other findings underlined this attitudinal shift. By the games' end, 65%* of viewers felt Channel 4's coverage had had a favourable impact on their perceptions of people with disabilities. 82%* agreed that disabled athletes were as talented as able-bodied - 91% among those who had watched the coverage. 68% felt the coverage had had a favourable impact on their perceptions of disabled people in sport.
Meanwhile 'Meet the Superhumans' was widely-praised for its creativity and impact winning many national and international awards including a D&AD Black Pencil, four D&AD Yellow Pencils and a Nomination at D&AD Awards 2013.
Channel 4 set out to make its coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games the biggest event in Channel 4's history and, by doing so, take Paralympic sport to another level. The end result was a powerful and striking campaign at the heart of which sat a 90-second TV ad, 'Meet the Superhumans'.
This film presented a number of Paralympians in 'do or die' training mode with reference to background stories and a climax depicting the intensity of elite sport competition set to a rousing musical soundtrack. Showing Paralympians as powerful warriors rather than people to pity was a striking break with convention.
'Meet the Superhumans' was Channel 4's biggest marketing push in 30 years. The campaign's scale plus its attitude, energy and production values helped create an unprecedented atmosphere of anticipation and excitement in the build up to the games.
The broadcaster's live broadcast of the opening ceremony was watched by 11.8 million TV viewers - its largest audience in ten years. The campaign also successfully raised awareness and understanding of disability in sport and helped the London 2012 Paralympics become the first Paralympic Games to sell out.
"Working with a broadcaster like Channel 4 was an opportunity for the Paralympics' organisers to take Paralympic sport to a whole new level," says Channel 4 Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Dan Brooke.
Channel 4 has a public service remit set by parliament which requires it to be innovative, distinctive, represent alternative views and bring minority voices centre stage. As a result, its winning bid for the Paralympic broadcast rights was underpinned by a number of important commitments.
For example, it committed to significantly increasing broadcast coverage - it eventually broadcast 500 hours, 400% more than the BBC's Paralympic coverage from Beijing in 2008. It also pledged to make the games more accessible to a wider audience; ensure at least 50% of the event's TV presenters were disabled; and explain disabled sports in new and more engaging ways.
"We knew from the outset editorial and advertising would need to work hand-in-hand if we were to achieve our goal of representing the event and its athletes as elite and world class with unique ability beyond their disability," Head of Marketing James Walker adds. "The challenge was: how?"
An internal, cross-departmental team was assembled spanning marketing, editorial and Channel 4's in-house creative agency / production company 4Creative which develops and produces creative campaigns for Channel 4 programming. "As both the marketing team and 4Creative report to me, the relationship is more equal partners than client and agency," Brooke explains.
Research into athletes' perceptions and audience attitudes was commissioned to help inform from the outset the overall vision and tone for both Channel 4's Paralympic editorial coverage and marketing. On-going attitudinal tracking was also put in place to gauge shifts over time and help feed into the early stages of creative development.
In August 2010, two years before London 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called 'Inside Incredible Athletes' - its first Paralympic-themed programming. This was supported by a marketing campaigned called 'Freaks of Nature' designed to challenge perceptions of disability in sport and encourage viewers to question their own prejudices.
"The intention was to change people's attitudes and to do that we needed to take them on a journey," Walker says. "'Freaks of Nature' was intended to challenge by turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. The idea was that if great athletes are considered exceptional and different, why not apply the same standard to Paralympians?"
The concept and the attitude it encapsulated provided an important part of the foundation for the campaign that would become 'Meet the Superhumans.'
In late 2011, work began in earnest on the London 2012 Paralympic Games launch marketing campaign at the heart of which would be a TV commercial. "The commercial was always going to be the centrepiece because TV is the strongest medium," Walker says. "And TV is the best medium to sell TV."
4Creative's starting point was the idea that Paralympic athletes are 'superhuman' - an evolution from the 'Freaks of Nature' campaign. "The line is the idea - I can't separate the two," explains Tom Tagholm, Channel 4's former Network Creative Director, who conceived and directed the 'Meet the Superhumans' campaign. "I'll normally try to write a visual idea and end in a line that sums up the thought in a strong way. It's what happened here."
What was needed was a creative execution that would make people both watch and think again about what they were watching - to wonder at who would win, rather than wonder that a disabled athlete can compete at all.
Tagholm's idea was for a film depicting the pain and joy involved in the intense preparation for and participation in elite, world-class competition with reference to some of the Paralympians' back stories - an explosion, a car crash, a mum in hospital. Its success would depend on conveying the emotional intensity, energy and attitude of the athletes themselves.
A decision was made to shoot live sports footage at Paralympian test events and storyboard iconic shots which selected athletes would then be asked to recreate.
"One of the main challenges we faced was overcoming the indifference people felt towards the Paralmypics. One of the key ingredients to the idea's success was the single-minded belief that the Paralympics did not have to be second best to the Olympics and could have its own voice, swagger and attitude," says 4Creative Business Director Olivia Browne.
"We absolutely embraced the athletes: their stance, the ways they've adapted to their sport, the ways they use their bodies. We sought to capture their 'take us as we are' spirit in a way that hadn't been done before - to celebrate the ability beyond their disability."
Led by producers Gwilym Gwillim and Rory Fry, the 4Creative production team spent 16 days shooting Paralympians all over the country but only for limited periods of time due to their intense training regimes. At all times the emphasis was on the need to find camera angles that were new and felt special. "On some occasions up to ten cameras were used - a mixture of formats including Phantom, Alexa and Canon 5D," Browne adds. "We even invented rigs that didn't exist to get right to the heart of the action."
Striking the right balance in the created scenes between footage that was both natural and shot from the heart of the action was also a challenge. Meanwhile, the back story scenes were storyboarded then shot as a "flashback moment" that would appear only briefly to provide an emotional jolt in the middle of the film.
"I didn't know these scenes would come in the middle of the ad until I got a little way into the edit," Tagholm says. "It just seemed the right place to not dwell on or over-dramatise these moments, but ensure they are felt in a vivid way."
The importance of attitude and emotional intensity made 4Creative editor Tim Hardy's role critical. Pace was essential - each shot had to be high energy, with nothing slow or moody. It was about being unapologetic with every aspect of the production - including the choice of music. Which is why when early on in the edit Hardy suggested Public Enemy's 'Harder Than You Think' all involved agreed the fit was perfect.
"I wrote 'Meet the Superhumans' to a hip hop track and this is where we looked first," Tagholm explains. "'Harder Than You Think' has the energy and the swagger and happens to work lyrically so it's got a few things going for it."
What did the Judges Have to say about Meet the Superhumans?
Watch our D&AD Black Pencil Judging film to find out.
Throughout the campaign's development, Channel 4 was in regular and close contact with Olympic organiser LOCOG, the Paralympic authorities and local sports governing bodies as well as its own sponsorship partners: Sainsbury and BT. "The big discussion with our external partners was about the unconventional way we proposed promoting the sport," Brooke explains. "But we were confident in our approach and the knowledge that we had won the broadcast rights because of (not despite) our commitment to handling them in a Channel 4 way."
Another challenge was when to launch 'Meet the Superhumans' to maximise its potential impact, Walker adds: "The question was whether to start it before, during or after the Olympics. Before seemed the right option allowing us both more time to build reach and to show clearly that the Paralympics can be the equal of the Olympics."
So 'Meet the Superhumans' was mass-launched simultaneously across 78 TV channels on Tuesday July 17 2012 at 9pm to reach at least 50% of the UK TV audience in one fell swoop. The film was supported by a series of posters continuing the 'Superhumans' theme and a stunt - 'Thanks for the warm up' - in which Channel 4 used Twitter and outdoor media in the final days of the Olympics to thank that event for preparing the audience for the Paralympics.
Looking back, Brooke believes Channel 4 creative culture played a central role in the campaign's success. "Our remit to be innovative and distinctive is so deeply engrained when I turn down ideas it's more likely to be because they are too conservative," he says.
"Some might question whether a cross-departmental committee is the best way of developing creative ideas. But it works for us because more people in a room allows more stress testing and sharpening of ideas, not less. 'Meet the Superhumans' typifies the importance of being bold while staying true to your core brand values and demonstrates the value of taking a creative risk."
Tagholm agrees: "The thinking was to go big and never be apologetic. You can't do this in an organisation if people are scared."