Rio Paralympics and Channel 4: telling a new story about disability

We talked to Channel 4’s chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brooke about how the broadcaster hopes to change perceptions of disability, starting with a Paralympics ad featuring 140 disabled people from around the world

Channel 4’s new spot for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio features 140 disabled people from around the world. There are dancers, swimmers, gymnasts, fencers, a brass band, a rock climber and a rally driver as well as a mum, an office worker and children with prosthetic limbs.

Some are doing extraordinary things – from wheelchair stunts to competing in the Paralympics – while others have found extraordinary ways to do everyday tasks. The film’s aim, says 4, is to challenge negative perceptions of disability and show that disabled people from all walks of life can be just as talented and capable as those who are able-bodied.

Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer at Channel 4, thinks there might be more disabled people in the three-minute spot than in all the ads ever shown on British TV.

“I can’t prove it … but the feedback we’re getting from disability charities who are close to all this is that this is the first time disabled people have been portrayed in this way, and certainly all together in this one triumphant place,” he adds.

UK broadcasters have all made increasing diversity a priority but while positive steps are being taken, disabled people remain woefully underrepresented on screen. Until 1992, there was not a single disabled actor in a UK soap and even now, there is rarely more than one disabled character in any one show. In 2014, the BBC revealed that just 1.2% of the people it represents on screen are disabled, yet in the UK, around 6% of children, 16% of working age adults and 45% adults over State Pension age have a disability.

In advertising, too, disabled people are equally hard to find. Channel 4’s 2012 Superhumans spot was praised for its portrayal of disabled athletes, and the number of ads featuring disabled people has increased since – Smirnoff launched an ad featuring deaf dancer Chris Fonseca earlier this year, while Axe’s Find Your Magic campaign featured a man in a wheelchair dancing at his wedding, and Guinness launched an ad starring wheelchair basketball players in 2013 – but ads featuring disabled people remain far from the norm. Often, representation is either ‘tokenistic’, using one disabled person in an ad that aims to reflect diversity, or stories are focused solely on disability and inspirational tales of overcoming adversity.

This kind of storytelling – such as Duracell’s spot from last year featuring blind NFL player Derrick Coleman – has been dubbed “inspiration porn”, leading to criticism from disabled people for presenting a somewhat patronising or reductive view of disability. It remains almost unheard of to see an ad with disabled people where disability isn’t the main focus or the crux of the story – and where the people in it just happen to be disabled, rather than being chosen on the basis of their impairment.

Brooke believes this is partly due to a lack of awareness around disability, which has led to brands and agencies being wary of “doing or saying the wrong thing” when representing disabled people. For this to change, he believes the industry needs to make a conscious effort to cast more disabled people and educate themselves by getting out and talking to people with different disabilities.

“There is nothing like awareness and understanding – once you’ve learned things, you can’t unlearn them and you become more committed [to making a positive change],” he explains. “No-one gets up in the morning and thinks, ‘I really must stop disabled people getting jobs today’ but it’s not until you proactively ask people to interview disabled candidates that you start to understand [the challenges they face] and have your eyes opened to the potential of working with people from different backgrounds, who have an enormous amount to offer,” he adds

In an attempt to increase the number of disabled people seen in TV ads, Channel 4 recently launched a campaign offering £1 million of airtime during the Paralympics Opening Ceremony, open to brands or agencies with an idea for an ad featuring disabled people. The competition was won by Maltesers and the ad will debut on TV on September 7.

“We were amazed to have the thick end of over 100 entries. We whittled it down to eight and when the agencies and clients came through and presented their ideas to use they said, ‘You’ve really opened our eyes to something’,” says Brooke.

“I don’t think we’re likely to start seeing a disabled person in every ad but hopefully now, we’ll see many more than we had in the past. You have to start somewhere … and I hope this will be an important step forward,” he says. “We’ve also learnt a lot about the casting process, about how to find people with disabilities, and we’re going to be passing a lot of that learning on to the industry. I’m happy for anyone who wants to know more to contact me.”

The ad is part of a wider push from Channel 4 to increase the numbers of disabled people working both on and off camera. Last year, it launched a campaign featuring disabled musician and model Viktoria Modesta (shown above) with the message ‘Forget what you think you know about disability’ as part of its Born Risky campaign and this year, it has pledged to double the number of disabled people appearing in lead shows from Googlebox to Hollyoaks and promised £300,000 of new talent initiatives aimed at recruiting more disabled people.

“Changing societal attitudes is a big part of what we’re here to do as a public service broadcaster and I hope [with the new Superhumans campaign] we will be able to take another leap forward in society’s attitudes towards disabled people, like we did for attitudes towards disabled athletes in 2012, but I think in a broader way,” says Brooke.

“I think people are aware now that the Paralympics and the athletes who compete in it are just as amazing as the Olympics, and just as high performing, but the thing that is less well understood is how amazing everyday people are – the difficulties they face in life [due to lack of accessibility or negative attitudes] and have to overcome,” he continues.

“The idea [for the new Superhumans ad] really came out of talking to disabled people who said it’s great that you’re featuring athletes, and that disabled people are being portrayed in this way, but does that mean I have to be a world class athlete to be superhuman? Because for me, going to work, just going to work and holding down a full-time job is more challenging than it is for most people. That’s where the insight came from really – wanting to change the perception of all disabled people and not just a small sliver of society who happen to be amazing at sport.”

You can read our interview with Dougal Wilson and 4Creative’s Alice Tonge about the making of the new Superhumans spot here.

More from CR

D&AD New Blood: Moving Image and Animation

From a series of films exploring what it means to be a teen to video games highlighting human rights abuses, we take a look at the Yellow Pencil-winning moving image and animation projects from D&AD’s New Blood Awards

D&AD New Blood: Advertising

A look at the Yellow Pencil-winning advertising projects from this year’s D&AD New Blood Awards, including a volunteer programme for shoe brand TOMS, an inventive window display for John Lewis and a retro game which aims to raise funds for endangered species

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency