As the opening ceremony for the Paralympic Games gets underway in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 7, British marketers – still fired up from the success of the London Paralympics in 2012 – are embracing the games with work that celebrates difference, and may even signal a new era for diversity.
U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 was first out of the block in July with the three-minute film "We're the Superhumans" to promote its coverage of the games. The commercial is a Broadway-inspired extravaganza featuring disabled people not just from the sports arena, but from all walks of life.
Its success demonstrates that diversity can be commercial. Globally, it was the most-shared ad of the Rio Olympics, according to Unruly, with more than 1.46 million shares by Aug. 23 -- a million more than its closest competitor, Michael Phelps' "Rule Yourself" spot for Under Armour.
One sponsor, Samsung, created a spot that is very much a part of its overall Olympics campaign. Two of the five ads in Bartle Bogle Hegarty's "School of Rio" series feature Paralympians. The latest execution stars equestrian Lee Pearson, who has won ten gold medals and is the flag-bearer for Team GB at the Paralympic opening ceremony.
In another, comedian Jack Whitehall -- who fronts the whole campaign -- joins two Paralympic swimmers for a 6 a.m. training session, and enthuses that more "holiday activities" should be included in the games before bombing into the water.
Russell Taylor, CMO of Samsung Electronics U.K., said in an email, "We didn't treat [the Olympics and Paralympics] as separate entities but as part of a coherent campaign. So for us, using Olympians and Paralympians in the School of Rio campaign was equally important, and we are proud to have worked with some of our country's best athletes."
Mars' Maltesers used very down-to-earth humor as the starting point for three ads that fit seamlessly into Maltesers' long-term brand positioning, and will debut during the Paralympics opening ceremony.
The ads show friends laughing about funny and sometimes shocking stories of life with disability. One execution – about a dog swallowing a hearing aid – is the first ever to be broadcast on U.K. TV using just sign language.
Philippa Field, an account director at Maltesers' agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, said in an email, "Our 'Look on the Light Side' platform for Maltesers felt like a really interesting way to subvert some of the usual representations of disability in advertising, using the power of humor to break down taboos and prejudices … The main challenge was learning enough about people living with disability to make the executions feel authentic and relatable."
The campaign won Channel 4's "Superhumans Wanted" competition, which gave away £1 million ($1.3 million) worth of Paralympic airtime to the brand that came up with the strongest campaign championing diversity and disability.
British marketers and consumers' enthusiasm for the Paralympics is largely due to Channel 4 and its commitment to the games. The broadcaster is devoting primetime to the Paralympics, showing nothing else between 7.30 p.m. and 1 a.m. every weekday, and from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. at weekends. Actor R.J. Mitte, who has cerebral palsy and played Walter White's disabled son in "Breaking Bad," is one of the main hosts of the TV coverage.
Like Samsung and Mars, Channel 4 also relies on humor to bring interest to the Paralympics. Its "Last Leg" comedy chat show is broadcast from the Olympic Park each night ahead of the games coverage, and is hosted by three presenters, two of whom are disabled.
Lewie Allen, managing director of Dentsu Aegis Network's digital diversity agency, Fortysix, said, "I grew up in the U.S. and I would say that Brits are more open-minded in accepting disability and integrating it into mainstream culture. But it needs to be done more seamlessly, and shouldn't need to be attached to a big occasion."
Beyond the Paralympics, marketers seem to be waking up to the idea of including disability as a more natural part of their campaigns. Volvo has just created a new series of sponsorship films with the theme "Human Made" for its partnership with Sky Atlantic.
All three films, by Grey London, are about innovation and design, and one features an engineer who works with amputees to develop smart prosthetics.