Making a follow-up to a successful ad campaign is always a daunting task. It’s especially daunting when that ad is Meet the Superhumans – the multi-award-winning spot that helped transform perceptions of the Paralympics in 2012 and attract the highest viewing figures for coverage of the Games in a decade.
For its latest Paralympics trailer, promoting this year’s Games in Rio, Channel 4 has released a three-minute film that celebrates not just athletes, but disabled non-athletes from around the world. There are dancers and musicians as well as footballers, swimmers and fencers, a rock climber with one arm, a rally driver who steers cars with his feet and children with prosthetic limbs playing football and bouncing on a trampoline.
Scenes of sporting feats and stunts are juxtaposed with people doing everyday tasks – one woman changes her child’s nappy with her feet while another writes notes during a phone call while gripping her pen with her toes. The ad is set to Sammy Davis Jr. track Yes I Can, performed throughout by a specially assembled band of disabled musicians.
The film has a confident, defiant tone and an empowering message. It acknowledges the challenges that disabled people face on a daily basis (both physical challenges and negative attitudes towards disability), but it also shows that disabled people are capable of doing both extraordinary and everyday tasks as well as any able-bodied person could – whether that task is dancing, rock climbing, swimming or simply brushing their teeth. It ends with the message, We’re All Superhumans, acknowledging that it’s not just athletes who have had to overcome enormous challenges to succeed.
Alice Tonge, creative director at 4Creative, says she hopes the ad will change the way people think about disability. “If you look at the dictionary definition of disability, it’s very negative – it says a condition which limits a person’s senses, movements or activities – and we wanted to challenge that definition,” she says.
Tonge and Channel 4’s group business director Olivia Browne say the broadcaster was also keen to give voice to a wider group of people following the success of 2012’s campaign.
“In 2012 it was all about the athletes and showing that the Paralympics didn’t have to be second best to the Olympics. I guess now we’ve shown that, so this time we wanted to branch out – it felt like the right thing to do,” says Tonge.
“We’re broadening the meaning of superhumans so it’s not just about athletes, but people from all walks of life,” adds Browne. “A big part of our remit at Channel 4 is championing minority voices, and people who might not be championed on other channels, and this is very much a reflection of that. We want people to forget what they think they know about disability and challenge any prejudices they have.”
The ad was filmed over 12 days and shot entirely in the UK, aside from one scene featuring archer Matt Stutzman, says Dougal Wilson, who directed it. “It was a huge logistical challenge – mainly for Ewen Brown the producer, Shananne Lane, the Channel 4 producer, Eddie Pearce the location manager, and Jim Cole, the assistant director,” he says.
“We had to be quite strategic about choosing our locations so that we could shoot four or five in one day, but make it feel like the places were geographically varied. For example, MPC did a fantastic job of building new CG stands, crowds and a Rio background [resembling the Rio stadium], while Daniel Landin the DoP made the weather as Rio-like as he could. The executive boardroom is actually in the Excel Centre, with a Manhattan background replacing the view of the car park.”
Many of the people featured were discovered online by Wilson and researcher Rose Waite – most are from the UK but others hail from Australia, America, Brazil, Canada, Haiti, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. “Part of the original brief from Channel 4 was to mix athletic and non-athletics. When I was writing my treatment I spent a lot of time searching for people on the web, especially musicians, as I thought they could provide a link between the two,” explains Wilson.
“One of the first people I found was Mark Goffeney, aka ‘Big Toe’, who plays the guitar with his feet. From there, I started searching for a band, and found lots of other musicians, such as Alwin Law (the drummer). Inevitably, I also found people who did other extraordinary things, like Jessica Cox, who does everything from karate to flying a plane, and the story started taking shape.”
When casting, Wilson says he was drawn to people who performed seemingly mundane tasks in an extraordinary way – “like driving a car, eating your breakfast, graduating from university, and so on…. We also found activities that weren’t so everyday that simply looked very visually impressive, such as Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham who does the final wheelchair jump or Matthew Phillips the rock climber,” he adds. Tonge says the team was also conscious of the need to represent people from a broad range of disabilities, such as visible impairments and less visible disabilities.
Wilson says he is “ashamed to admit” it’s the first time he has worked with disabled people on an ad but adds: “It did not present any challenges at all, as our cast were hugely talented, fantastic performers and incredibly professional.” One of the main challenges while filming however, was making sure locations and rehearsal spaces were accessible. “The experience definitely opened my eyes to how big an issue accessibility is,” he explains.
The ad premiered on social media tonight and will air at 9pm on Channel 4 every night from July 15-22. Shorter versions will then be shown daily until August 22. Subtitled, signed and audio described versions are available on All 4, Facebook, Twitter on YouTube and the film will also be aired in cinemas across the country, with subtitled versions playing during hearing impaired screenings.
The film will be supported by a national print campaign, shot by Nadav Kander, and social media content telling the stories of people featured. “The print campaign is about featuring athletes and people doing incredible feats with the ‘dis’ in the word disability crossed out,” says Tonge.
One of the main inspirations for the campaign was the resilience demonstrated by both non-athletes and athletes featured in the ad, says Browne. Citing the determination of Paralympic dressage rider Natasha Baker, who went on to win a gold medal after being told she’d never walk again, she says: “We talk about this strength of the human spirit, and I think that’s one of the things we loved about the idea of Yes I Can. It really captured something we were struck by with both the athletes and non-athletes – they’d all been told no at some point, but they’ve turned that into a Yes I Can.”
As well as challenging prejudices, and celebrating ability beyond disability, Tonge and Browne hope the campaign will lead to more disabled people being represented on screen. “Disability is so badly represented, it’s almost tokenistic, and Channel 4 has a big aim to change that,” says Tonge. “We want to see disabled people represented in content not just because they’re disabled, but because they’re part of the population.”
Production Company: Blink
Executive Creative Director: Chris Bovill, John Allison
Creative Director: Alice Tonge
Head of Production: Clare Brown
Executive Producer: Shananne Lane
Creative: Alice Tonge, Dougal Wilson, Jolyon White, Richard Biggs
Group Business Director: Olivia Browne
Director: Dougal Wilson
Producer: Ewen Brown
DOP: Daniel Landin
Offline Editor: Joe Guest @ Final Cut
VFX Producer: Hannah Ruddleston @ MPC
VFX: Tom Harding @ MPC
Audio Design: Anthony Moore @ Factory
Production Design: Andy Kelly
Music supervision: Leland Music
Read our interview with Channel 4’s chief marketing and communications officer about the lack of disabled people in advertising, and how Channel 4 is working to change that, here.