When Channel 4 won the rights in 2010 to broadcast the 2012 London Paralympic Games, the broadcaster’s chairman designate, Lord Burns, promised to make them the main event, rather than a sideshow to the Olympics. But the odds were stacked high against fulfilling that promise. At the time, just 14% of the British public said they were looking forward to the Paralympics, while virtually no one could name a Paralympian.
Channel 4 didn’t shrink from the challenge. With a slim portfolio of live sports coverage, it dove back into sport by committing to broadcast more than 150 hours of the Paralympics, a significant increase from the BBC’s coverage of the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. It also took seriously its public service remit – which calls on the broadcaster to be innovative and challenge established views, pledging to make the Games accessible to a wider audience and bring disability into the mainstream.
A ComRes poll in August 2012 showed that nearly one in four people felt uncomfortable around people with disabilities, rising to nearly one in three among the young. To challenge these perceptions, Channel 4 decided to embrace the unique physical attributes of the disabled athletes and show how they had adapted their bodies to meet the challenges of their sport. From there the core idea for the campaign was born: that Paralympic athletes are superhuman.
The resulting campaign, "Meet the superhumans," was Channel 4’s biggest marketing push since its founding in 1982. Created by Channel 4’s in-house creative agency, 4Creative, it built anticipation for the Games through a series of 28 short films that told the stories of some of the athletes. Towards the end of the Olympics, 4Creative released poster and press ads with the tagline, "Thanks for the warm up," to remind people that London 2012 was far from over.
At the heart of the campaign was an emotional and striking 90-second TV spot shining a light on the determination of the Paralympic athletes, set against the soundtrack of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think. Shots of the participants’ arduous preparations and athletic feats were intercut with scenes hinting at their backstories, such as a car crash and a mother in a hospital.
When it finally came time for the event, Channel 4’s live broadcast of the opening ceremony captured 11.8 million TV viewers, its largest audience in ten years; 87% of people who saw the marketing campaign went on to watch the Paralympics.
The campaign was also a huge success among critics. Channel 4 took home the UK’s only Grand Prix from the 2013 Cannes Lions, when "Meet the superhumans" won the biggest prize in Film Craft. It also won the Grand Prix for direction, a silver lion for editing, and two bronzes for best production value and best use of music, as well as a gold in the Film Lions. The initiative also swept the British Arrows, D&AD Awards, and the Marketing Society Awards, and was named Campaign’s campaign of the year for 2012.
But more importantly, a survey taken after the 2012 Paralympics found that 56% of viewers felt more comfortable talking about disabilities and 85% of those who saw the marketing thought the disabled athletes were just as talented as able-bodied ones. More than a boost for Channel 4, the campaign helped change the nation’s attitude toward disability for the better.