Inside Vanish’s £1m ad that dispelled tired tropes about autism in girls
It made its debut back in March and since then has been praised for its accurate and sensitive approach. Here, we speak to the Havas London creative who wrote it.
Based on the findings that autistic girls are three times less likely to receive a diagnosis than boys, garment care brand Vanish decided to spotlight the issue with a poignant short titled ‘Me, My Autism and I’.
“This all started on an everyday product brief,” explains senior creative Hollie Iles. “We were going through scripts, discussing why clothes really matter to people.”
The challenge was how they could bring this to life. Most people have a pair of lucky pants or a much-loved dress, that specific item of clothing that you always want to remain the same, but for some, garments can take on a whole other meaning. For many autistic people, clothes can become a way to regulate their senses and help with navigating the world.
“We thought, this could have a much bigger meaning for people. Actually, the Channel 4 brief is something that the client had sent to the team and luckily our idea aligned with it,” she continues. “It was one of the serendipitous moments on this project.”
Each year, the broadcaster prompts brands and agencies to be more inclusive in their advertising. The prestigious scheme rewards one recipient £1m worth of commercial airtime on Channel 4. To have the approval and belief of the channel was unparalleled, says Iles.
Iles reveals that she couldn’t help but go ahead and do a load of research for this before getting the script to a place everyone at the agency was happy with. Her first draft featured a little boy as the main character who was a bit younger, and it ended up speaking more toward the parents of the child. It wasn’t quite right.
“It probably fell into some of the tropes we’re used to seeing with autism,” the creative confesses. “Then, we found a stat that said girls are three times less likely to receive a diagnosis and as soon as we saw that it stayed with me.” The whole team knew the direction they had to take it in. It had to be about a girl.
The client was committed straight off the bat. “Everyone just got it and felt it immediately. That’s how you can get the power of an idea, when that snowball effect just grows and grows,” Illes continues. “Vanish was on board and wanted to make it as big and powerful as possible. To do it right, as well. They kept us honest with that.” A partnership with UK charity Ambitious About Autism was established early on, its team was there throughout the entire process.
The development of the lead character for the spot began to evolve. “It had to be an older girl and we had to speak to teenagers around that age of key diagnosis. That big move for young women from primary to secondary school,” she continues. “During that time, there are huge changes both internally, hormonally but also in terms of social groups.” It’s a time when girls who might have been trying to mask their autistic traits might begin to find it slightly more difficult.
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Casting was crucial. First-time actor Ash landed the role. She has autism and Iles remembers in the first take the team noticed that she was stimming with the school jumper. The way she talked about clothes and how important they were to her weaved throughout the film beautifully. From the first tapes they saw of her, they all got “goosebumps” and knew she was the one. “She held the camera so well, captivating every frame. You just couldn’t stop looking at her. She was a gift to us. It felt so right for what we wanted to do.” The supporting actors in the film are the young girl’s real family, allowing everyone to be truly honest.
To the viewers, it’s not immediately obvious that this is a Vanish ad right until the last minute. Of course, if you watch it again you understand the sweater narrative a little differently. “We’re always assured that the role of the brand is this enabler of the conversation, the supporter and the platformer for these stories,” she explains. “That was really important to keep in mind throughout.”
To hear about the role Tom Hooper played in the ad and how audiences have reacted to the campaign listen to this week’s Anatomy of an Ad podcast episode.