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Marketing Paralympics Advertising

How Paralympic ads could be even more effective

By Jon Evans |

August 26, 2021 | 7 min read

Jon Evans, chief marketing officer of System1, uses the organization’s research to explore how advertisers could better activate around the Paralympics.

Jessica Long Toyota

Toyota’s ad from the US starred Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long

Over the last 21 years, we’ve seen the Paralympic movement become more recognized and more coordinated with the Olympic movement it parallels. This has meant more exposure for Paralympic athletes, more broadcast events and more public excitement around the sports.

It’s also heightened the commercial appeal of the Games. Sponsorship and brand activity has now become an inextricable part of the Paralympics, with big names such as Alibaba and Visa among its official partners. The question is – how many of them will actually leverage their Paralympic connection?

Behind the public shows of attention to Paralympic sports, the difficult truth is that it’s often been ignored by sponsors and given secondary attention when those rights are taken up. It’s true that viewing figures for the Paralympics are lower on average than the sister event, and that the Paralympics have far fewer big names. But there’s a virtuous cycle effect in play where sponsor activity could build a profile for Paralympic sports and athletes, in turn creating higher reach and a better return on investment.

We know this partly because we’ve seen it happen. When Channel 4 took over broadcast rights for the Paralympics in the UK, it crafted not one but two Cannes Grand Prix-winning campaigns, radically reframing Paralympic sport as the activity of ‘The Superhumans’ – people pushing beyond the limits of their bodies to achieve astonishing things. The ‘Meet the Superhumans’ ads were confident, stylish and uncompromising, and drove record ticket sales and viewing figures for the London Paralympic Games.

Away from the Olympics, we’ve also seen how powerful advertising can be in telling unheard stories and placing spotlights on diverse groups. Our recent Feeling Seen report, co-authored with ITV and DECA, explores how inclusion in advertising can be a win-win for brands and audiences. Advertising with strong stories, entertaining execution and diverse stars don’t turn general audiences off, but they do delight people in those diverse groups, including people with disabilities. We proved that when people feel seen on screen, the intensity of the emotional response is greater. The result is a ‘Diversity Dividend’ in effectiveness for brands that get it right.

People with disabilities are one of the most underrepresented groups in advertising, despite being a big segment of the audience (a recent campaign says 15%). The Paralympic Games offers brands a huge opportunity to feature this group in ads that are inspiring, empowering and tell great stories that appeal to every audience. Taking that opportunity should be a no-brainer. Brands that fail to use their Paralympic sponsorship rights to the full are missing a massive trick.

So what can our effectiveness data tell us about how to do it well? We looked at the major Paralympics-themed ads for the Tokyo Games – including Channel 4, Nissan and Toyota, as well as some ads from the Rio 2016 and London 2012 Games. We tested them all with two groups: a nationally representative sample and a sample of people with disabilities.

The results revealed how emotional and effective a great Paralympic Games ad can be. But they also showed that for people with disabilities, representation in ads isn’t always enough.

When writing Feeling Seen, we found that the ‘Diversity Dividend’ uplift in effectiveness was extremely consistent in some groups but less so in others – and for people with disabilities the uplift wasn’t guaranteed. Only one of our Paralympic Test Ads – the 2021 Channel 4 campaign – showed a strong uplift between the general population sample and the people with disabilities sample. ‘Super. Human.’ by Channel 4 went up a whole star rating (from three to four out of five) when people with disabilities saw it – they found it more inspiring and also enjoyed the music and visual humor.

But for other ads we saw scores fall for viewers with disabilities. Nissan’s commercial about athletes being given absurd suggestions by marketers scored a solid three stars overall, but dropped to two stars for viewers with disabilities. Channel 4’s original, award-winning ‘Meet The Superhumans’ also scored worse among viewers with disabilities. Its aggressive editing and loud rhythmic soundtrack were more jarring for the sample with disabilities, some of whom will have visual impairments or a higher sensitivity to noise. Results such as this underscore that people with disabilities are simply not a one-size-fits-all market, but are overlapping groups with distinct needs.

The most positive results, though, come from those ads that showed low uplift because they were already so effective – commercials that scored well among both the general population and people with disabilities.

The star performer here was Toyota, whose ad from the US starred Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, and is a beautifully-shot dramatization of her journey from an orphanage to the Tokyo Games.

Moving and inspiring, it got a maximum five-star score from both groups.

Samsung’s comical ‘School Of Rio’ ad with Team GB Paralympic swimmers Ellie Simmonds and Susie Rodgers got a high four stars among both groups.

This underlines the other big conclusion of the Feeling Seen report – that diverse advertising unites us. The Paralympics are a wellspring of unheard and untold stories – find the right one, tell it well, and you’ll create an ad that is effective for any audience group.

So for advertisers looking to make the most of their Paralympic sponsorship, it should be noted that it’s harder to get an effectiveness uplift and a diversity dividend among people with disabilities. Just featuring them isn’t enough – you have to tell their stories in ways that inspire but also entertain.

The good news is that Paralympic ads can hit the heights of effectiveness – Toyota’s five-star ad aired throughout the Olympics, even though it featured a Paralympian, because the story it told was so unifying. It’s one of the year’s most effective ads – sporting or otherwise. It is certainly worthy of a gold medal in our eyes.

Marketing Paralympics Advertising

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