In 2012, Channel 4’s Paralympic Games campaign, Meet the Superhumans raised awareness and understanding of disability in sport and helped London 2012 Paralympics become the first Paralympic Games to sell out. The broadcaster took Paralympic sport to another level and it was through its striking 90-second TV ad that they achieved this.
It was breathtakingly powerful. We saw Paralympians in training mode, where their stories were subtlety referenced but consistently hit home the pure strength that emanated from these athletes as Public Enemy’s track, Harder Than You Think blared behind them. It was impressive, confident, exciting and completely new in terms of how Paralympic sport had been presented to us – but how do you keep that momentum four years on?
Launching tonight (Thursday 14 July) is Channel 4’s ad for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and 4Creative, the channel’s in-house creative agency, and multi-award winning director Dougal Wilson have worked tirelessly to create a trailer that not just embodies the same empowering ethos as 2012’s spot but builds on it.
“There’s still a really poor representation of disability on screen and Channel 4 want to do something about that,” says Alice Tonge, creative director at 4Creative. “In 2012 our incredible Superhumans ad was focused all around the athletes and this time around we wanted to broaden the term “superhuman” and talk about non-athletes as well.” Olivia Browne, 4Creative’s group business director adds: “That’s the big departure. We want to celebrate ability beyond disability and really give the Paralympics its own voice and swagger,” she says.
In the three minute-long ad (the longest ad the channel has ever made), the action is set to Sammy Davies Jr’s song Yes I Can. The track has been re-recorded by a specially assembled band of disabled musicians, and draws artists together from the UK and around the world, while showcasing Paralympian athletes and other, non-athletes doing achieving remarkable things.
“I don’t think you try and top the last ad. You just do something different”– Olivia Browne, group business director 4Creative
“We wanted to illustrate that someone brushing their teeth can be as superhuman as someone who plays wheelchair rugby,” says the ad’s director Dougal Wilson. “When I was writing the treatment, I was looking for a link between sport and non-sport and started thinking that music could provide this connection. One of the first people I met while working on the ad was Mark Goffeney, AKA Big Toe, who plays the guitar with his feet. From there I started searching for a ‘band’ and we managed to find lots of other musicians who were overcoming their disability by playing music.”
To create the band and the ad as a whole, it required casting an array of musicians, athletes, dancers and extras. More than 140 people with disabilities star in the advert, so finding the right people meant eschewing traditional ways of casting. “We went through the obvious channels first like talking to agents, but we wanted to dig a little deeper,” says Alice. “Thank god for the internet and our team of researchers because we found some amazing people just by trawling through hundreds of YouTube clips and Facebook videos. I love that these talented people don’t have agents, we’re giving people a chance to shine on their own and giving them a platform they didn’t have before – it’s very Channel 4 in that respect.”
Dougal adds: “We were drawn to people who did seemingly mundane tasks in an extraordinary way – like driving a car, eating breakfast, graduating from university, and so on. But obviously we also found activities that weren’t so everyday that simply looked very visually impressive, such as Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham who does the final wheelchair jump in the commercial, Matthew Phillips the rock climber, and Jessica Cox, who does everything from karate to flying a plane. We combined these activities with Paralympic sports, using the band as the visual and audio link.”
A mammoth 60 scenes feature in the spot: “We’re going out with the same kind of ballsiness as 2012,” says Olivia. “This is the biggest campaign Channel 4 will do this year, and that scale is a real indicator of our commitment to the cause.”
To combat the magnitude of the task the team were guided by one of Dougal’s signature “crap-o-matics”, which is a rough cut of the film to give a sense of pace by piecing together YouTube clips and Photoshop compositions. From this, 4Creative and production company Blink had just a 12-day window to shoot the whole advert.
“Just about everything was shot in the UK, but it was a huge logistical challenge,” says Dougal. “We had to be quite strategic in choosing our locations so that we could shoot four or five scenes in one day, but still make it feel like the places were geographically varied.”
The crew ended up creating stadiums in Crystal Palace Sports Centre and a New York boardroom in a room at the Excel Centre. However, it wasn’t just logistical limitations that had to be considered. “Another challenge was making sure all our locations and rehearsal spaces were accessible, the experience definitely opened my eyes to how big an issue accessibility is for people with disabilities,” says Dougal.
With such an intense filming schedule and crowds of inspiring people, the whole team was fully invested in the project. “It’s been an emotional process and bonds have been formed,” says executive producer Shananne Lane. “A lot of people we’re featuring have been doing these amazing things just on their own and now they’re coming together and meeting other superhuman people.”
She adds: “There’s layers within these stories that extend to the support they have around them. The great thing about the ad is that even though it’s about the Paralympics, it shows you that you don’t have to take the sporty, athlete route, rather you could take up the piano, or become a dancer. Nothing is off limits.”
This is a key message in the film and echoed throughout in Sammy Davies Jr’s lyrics. “The words in Yes I Can really come alive against the backdrop of these athletes,” says Olivia. “The song’s not been used before and it’s a very celebratory and wonderful piece of music. Also Sammy himself was visually impaired, so there’s a lovely connection in that.”
Talking about the 2016 ad, it’s difficult not to touch upon the success of 4Creative’s 2012 campaign for the London Paralympics, but to overcome this difficult second album pressure internally, the team faced it head on. “I don’t think you try and top the last ad. You just do something different,” says Olivia, who worked on the previous campaign as well as this year’s.
Grace Ayres, Channel 4’s senior marketing manager believes the approach to this year’s ad will set it apart: “I think people will be really surprised by the direction we’ve taken. Probably the biggest difference is that we’re not just focusing on sport. In the 2012 campaign people had never seen a disabled athlete presented that way before. Now we’re showing people with incredible ability across the board. Tonally the ad is very different compared to last time’s spot. There was more attitude and sass last time and while that confidence is still present, this year’s spot feels more joyous and inclusive,” she says.
4Creative is continuing the legacy it created four years ago and with this ad they demonstrate that being superhuman is a state of mind, whether you’re a Paralympian or not.
The We’re The Superhumans advert launches tonight 8pm on Channel 4 and is set to be accompanied by a poster campaign shot by Nadav Kander. Subtitled, signed and audio described versions of the film will be available on All 4, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, making it the most accessible campaign ever produced by Channel 4.