How Paralympics advertisers empowered athletes

03 Oct 2016  |  Heather Andrew 
How Paralympics advertisers empowered athletes

Following 2016's Rio Games, brands should be confident about featuring disability in advertising, writes Heather Andrew

The work of numerous organisations in recent years has cemented the Paralympics firmly in the minds of the nation, and our enthusiasm for this year's Games has been matched by a slew of brand messaging around the event.

While there is a desire for more consistent visibility of disability across all types of media, our research shows that audiences do respond positively to disability in advertising - so long as the cast is in control of the narrative.

Neuro-Insight conducted a study featuring three of this year's Paralympics adverts to find out which elements of the ad work best from the brain's perspective.

We use a technology called Steady State Topography (SST) to reveal second-by-second electrical activity in the brain in order to understand how viewers are responding to communications.

Our key metrics include how engaged a person is by certain features in an ad, which aspects of the advert are being stored into long-term memory and the extent to which viewers are emotionally energised throughout the ad.

The study, which included Channel 4's "We're The Superhumans", Samsung's "School of Rio: Swimming", and Paralympics GB's "Supercharge" showed key similarities between the three ads.

In all three ads, the initial appearance of the Paralympians elicited some uncertainty, but this was replaced in each case by strong and positive emotional response when the Paralympians were shown to be in a position of strength, either on or off the field of play.

For example, in "School of Rio", viewers respond ambivalently when Jack Whitehall first makes jokes around Ellie Simmonds and Susie Rodgers; it seems that people aren't sure whether they should be laughing at this point.

However, once viewers realise that there is complicity between the characters, and that the athletes are in control of the narrative, a positive emotional response spikes rapidly as people realise (subconsciously) that it's OK to find the film funny. The end result is a highly effective piece of communication.

Channel 4's "We Are The Superhumans" was recently reported as the most shared ad of the Olympics Games by Unruly. Its narrative is led by a cast of Paralympians as well as disabled non-athletes, with the action ranging from a blindfolded football match to a drummer with no arms.

We're led by singer Tony Dee, who provides the ad's vocals from his wheelchair as he travels through the scenes.

By showing a broader cast than just athletes, Channel 4 produced a disability-led narrative which empowered a wider audience than the other ads tested, resulting in higher personal relevance than an athletics-focussed spot might have achieved.

Paralympic GB's "Supercharge" uses Paralympians to build a strong emotional intensity rather than the light-hearted creative from Channel 4 and Samsung.

The ad focuses on star Paralympians like Ellie Simmons and David Weir, showing them in action during their events as well as their victories. It doesn't display as a strong a narrative as the other ads, but the brain still follows the star Paralympians when they are on-screen.

The action in "Supercharge" is purely athletic, which could have resulted in lower levels of personal relevance for audiences compared with Channel 4 and Samsung's spots.

However, the ad pulls out moments of perseverance, which resonate well with viewers and maintain a sense of personal relevance throughout.

The ad features people interacting, showing emotions and facial features (all universally engaging features for our brains) and is therefore more likely to elicit positive emotional responses and memory encoding from its audience.

Even though depictions of disability are still something of a rarity in advertising, we are pleased to find positive audience responses from disabled characters in control of an ad's narrative.

Additionally, while Paralympic athletes might be a natural choice for a figurehead role, success from the likes of Channel 4 should embolden advertisers to seek talent from other fields which may appeal to their audiences.

With these insights behind them, we look forward to seeing more inclusive creative still to come from brands and agencies.


Heather Andrew is CEO of Neuro-Insight

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18 Jun 2018 

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