When Channel 4 became the official broadcaster of the London 2012 Paralympics, the odds were stacked against its coverage being a success. As a TV network emerging from a fallow period of live sport output, one considerable problem was the sheer technical challenge of making good on its promise to screen 500 hours of the event, a 400% increase on the airtime delivered by the more seasoned BBC for the previous installment. Channel 4’s biggest issue by far, however, was a much more fundamental one: most people just weren’t interested in the Paralympics.
With a mere 14% of the UK population saying they were looking forward to the event, Channel 4 needed a mammoth marketing campaign to change minds and win viewers. Fortunately, it was able to turn to one of the best in-house teams in the business, 4Creative, to produce exactly that. What they delivered was ‘Meet the Superhumans’, Channel 4’s biggest ever ad campaign, which launched with a concurrent primetime premiere across 78 TV channels including rivals ITV, Sky One and Five. Little did viewers know what was about to hit them.
Set to the unmistakable soundtrack of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think (one of the most fitting advertising song choices in recent memory), ‘Meet the Superhumans’ cycles through a series of high-octane sporting set pieces to convey the skill and endeavor required to be a Paralympian. With brilliant visual panache, the ad thrusts the viewer right into the heart of the action on basketball courts and in swimming pools, stressing how a disabled athlete needs to submit to training every bit as grueling as their counterpart Olympians. But the ad’s genius is its ability to convey how Paralympians must overcome much bigger hurdles to excel in sport, which it does by revealing the dexterity and fortitude that sets these athletes apart from the rest of us mere mortals.
Watching ‘Superhumans’ back now, it’s remarkable how it has retained the power to astonish. This writer vividly remembered the stirring sporting scenes and uplifting lyrics (“thank you for lettin’ us be ourselves”) but had recollected it is as an uncompromisingly upbeat film. So the moment halfway through when the triumphant athletic vignettes stop abruptly and are replaced with the sudden sights of an improvised explosive device detonating on a battlefield and a car overturning on a motorway, depicting unsparingly how one’s Paralympic journey might begin, was profoundly affecting.
“The commercial of the year by a million miles,” was how ad agency supremo Trevor Beattie summed up ‘Superhumans’ at the time. Not quite everyone agreed with that assessment (the jury at Cannes Lions gave that gong to ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ instead) though ‘Superhumans’ did still collect a Cannes Grand Prix for film craft and amass scores more accolades including a D&AD Black Pencil.
More importantly, the ad resonated in the real world. After fearing few would watch, 11.8 million viewers ended up turning in to the opening ceremony, making it Channel 4’s biggest audience in a decade. In all, 87% of adults who recalled seeing the campaign went on to watch the event, but its impact was even greater than that. 64% of viewers agreed they felt ‘more positive’ towards disabled people as a result of Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics and 85% of those who saw ‘Superhumans’ thought that disabled athletes were just as talented as able-bodied ones.
We’ve heard words like ‘purpose’ and ‘storytelling’ bandied about an awful lot by advertisers over the last 10 years. ‘Superhumans’ is our ad of the decade because it packs more of both into 90 seconds than most other ads could manage strung together.