Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is a muscle-wasting disease that almost exclusively affects males. There are currently around 2,500 boys living with Duchenne in the UK and as there is no cure, most of them won’t live past their twenties.
Today, charity Duchenne UK launched a new campaign, created by WCRS, which aims to celebrate the strength and courage of those living with the disease and encourage fitness fans to “use their muscles” to help fund research into a cure.
A one-minute spot directed by George Belfield starts out like a film about sporting success, tracking a child walking through a floodlit stadium to the sounds of whistles and cheers.
We quickly learn, however, that Alex is not an athlete or a sports star but a ten-year-old boy living with DMD. “He already knows he is too weak to keep up with his friends. He knows he’ll soon be to weak to walk altogether … but it’s living with that that makes Alex anything but weak,” explains a voiceover. The ad ends with a message urging viewers to help save the World’s Strongest Boys.
An accompanying YouTube film compiles footage of weight lifters, ice skaters, gymnasts, an acrobatic basketball team and Olympic athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill and Louis Smith demonstrating physical strength, and ends with the message: “Think that’s strong? Check out the World’s Strongest Boys”.
A campaign website urges people to support the charity by taking part in sporting events or buying protein shakes and t-shirts, with proceeds going towards research and trials for possible treatments.
Emily Crossley, founder and co-CEO of Duchenne UK, hopes the campaign will help boost Duchenne UK’s profile and raise money for research and treatment trials. The ad comes at a time when excitement is building for the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and taps into the growing interest in doing physical challenges to raise money for good causes.
“[WCRS] wanted this to be not just a one-off advert but a movement – something that could engage people in the long term not just as an awareness brand, but a fundraising brand,” she adds. “We wanted to give something to the Duchenne community that was empowering, so when people do a marathon or a triathlon for us, they can do it for the World’s Strongest Boys.”
Crossley says the charity also wanted to create an empowering campaign that avoided presenting people with Duchenne as victims. “We didn’t want to constantly perpetuate this image of boys in wheelchairs,” she says. “We were very conscious of the fact that many people don’t understand the disease … and because we’re living with this everyday [Crossley’s son has Duchenne], we see what it takes just to get out of bed and face the world. Just to do a normal day that an able-bodied person would find easy is hugely challenging … but people with Duchenne still have fulfilling lives, and go to university and have friends, so we wanted to move away from this idea of victimising men and boys with Duchenne,” she adds.
In 2013, Harrison’s Fund, a charity set up by Alex and Donna Smith, whose eldest son has Duchenne, launched a controversial ad to raise awareness of the disease, which featured a black-and-white image of Alex holding Harrison under the headline “I wish my son had cancer”. Speaking to CR last year, Alex Smith said he was trying to raise awareness of the lack of options for people living with the incurable disease – “I was trying to say that if he had a cancer diagnosis there would be a chance, however small it is, that there would be an option. Whereas where we stood, and where we still stand today, we have no choices and no options,” he said – but the ad elicited a furious response from the public.
WCRS’ campaign for Duchenne UK acknowledges the bleak outlook for people diagnosed with the disease but avoids shock tactics and instead strikes a more positive note, celebrating the inner strength and resilience of people with Duchenne and motivating able-bodied people to use their physical strength to help them.
“I really hope it touches a nerve with people and engages them to ride that fitness wave and do something for good,” says Crossley.
WCRS Executive Creative Director: Billy Faithfull
Creative team: Conrad Swanston, Alex Bingham
Design: Howard de Smet
Product and campaign photography: Kuba Wieczorek
Read Eliza Williams’ feature on health advertising and the challenges faced by charities like Duchenne here.