Telling 'Great Story' of People With Down Syndrome

Two Agencies Work Together to Squash Marginalizing Myths

By Published on .

Tom Cook
Tom Cook
When we first accepted the opportunity to develop a public awareness campaign for the National Down Syndrome Society, it was a collective desire to help out, to take a breather from sweating brands to maybe building something more inwardly satisfying. We knew little about Down syndrome and those who had it, no more than the average person out there. Little did we know it was going to become very personal, very fast.

Our two agencies—Pedone Advertising in New York, and York & Chapel in Milford, Conn.—learned that the issue was an extremely emotional one after many interviews with parents, doctors and self-advocates.

There are many misconceptions and outdated stereotypes about people with Down syndrome. For example, one myth says people with Down syndrome have a short life span. In fact, they are living longer than ever before. Their average life expectancy is nearly 60 years, and they are going to school, working and contributing to society in many ways.

Spend some time with a self-advocate, and you'll feel a change coming over you. People with Down syndrome are funny. They fall in love. They have jobs and careers. Talk to them for a bit, and you'll see they have day-to-day problems, dreams and things they don't like to do. In fact, they are just like me and you.

Oh, and one other thing: Some of them have great stories.

This is where it started to get personal for our companies. Both agencies think it's important to get involved in pro bono efforts. Our people like it, our other clients appreciate it and, frankly, pro bono clients usually give agencies more creative freedom. So mixed with the altruism is also a good dose of business sense. We jumped into the "My Great Story" campaign with full enthusiasm, looking forward to meeting the self-advocates.

For example, take Sujeet Desai. Featured as "The Traveler" in one of the "My Great Story" PSA print ads, he has traveled the world performing on the clarinet and six other instruments, acquiring admiring fans. Like the PSA says, he's performed in front of an audience of thousands and has been honored by the prime minister of Singapore.

You tell his family that his life is not worthwhile, that he's not making a difference.

Then there's Sara Wolf, who is featured as "The Public Speaker" in the other PSA print ad. She loves talking in front of kids, young adults, seniors and whoever else will listen about how much she loves her life and how Down syndrome has never stopped her from reaching her goals. She's spoken in front big-time audiences, even on stage at New York's Waldorf Astoria alongside Barbara Walters.

That's just two stories—and we didn't have to dig too deeply to see there were thousands more.

These weren't people to be marginalized and ignored—they were people to be celebrated and included in our world. Theirs were stories that needed to be told, and we were lucky to be chosen to tell them.

As Mike Pedone, president of Pedone put it, "Nothing was going to stop us now. We had a chance to change the minds of an entire country—what ad guy wouldn't leap at the chance?"

So the "My Great Story" public awareness campaign was born. York & Chapel set to work redoing the society's website and building a community site that would allow families to tell and share all their stories. York expanded the idea online to Facebook and MySpace, while Pedone commissioned a photographer and production company to shoot and document the campaign.

If you have the opportunity, take a look at the print ads. It was a day of monkeys, exotic backdrops and a lot of laughter.

Six months after the campaign's launch, the stories of Sujeet and Sara have been viewed by more than 100 million people in media outlets such as Allure, American Way, Condé Nast Traveler, Continental Magazine, CNN Airport Network, Fortune, Glamour, Golf Digest, Lucky, Newsweek, SELF, Time, USA Today, Vogue and Wired. To date, more than $3.5 million in ad space and services has been donated in support.

Dave Ho, the president of York & Chapel, calls the "My Great Story" campaign one of the most gratifying and satisfying projects he's ever worked on. And as the guy who got to interview both Sujeet and Sara and watched with respect as they struck their poses during the shoot, I couldn't agree more.

Keep an ear out for Sujeet and Sara—their stories aren't nearly done. Not by half.

Tom Cook is partner at York & Chapel and was previously creative director at Pedone.
Most Popular