It’s been ten years since the Olympics and the Paralympics came to London and completely changed the way I felt about my country for a few months. You see, I’ve never been much of a patriot and am of the firm opinion that nationalism is a blight. But even my cold heart turned a little red, white and blue in the summer of 2012 when we hosted the games.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole thing though was how much attention was focused on the Paralympic Games. Back then, only around 1 in 10 people had any intention of tuning into the sister event to the “main Olympic Games” but in 2020, a third of the UK were actively engaged in the event.
A large part of that success can be attributed to the sheer amount of effort put in by Channel 4 and a big part of that effort was reinforced by a truly spectacular piece of advertising that still gives me chills a decade later.
Harder than you think
The ‘Meet the Superhumans’ campaign burst onto screens in 2012 to promote the London Paralympics, before returning for the Rio Paralympics in 2016 as ‘We’re the Superhumans’, and then again for the Tokyo 2020 games as ‘Super.Human’.
With each iteration building upon the last, the campaign not only changed perceptions around the Paralympics games, but has had a long lasting impact on both perceptions of disabilities and representation of disabled people in media. Some four in five people said their attitude towards disabled people had changed for the better following the 2012 Paralympics, and Channel 4 found the same to be true following 2016’s effort as well.
The initial campaign was led by then Channel 4 head of marketing Dan Brooke, who was told by Seb Coe that he would have to contend with “an activistic belief that Paralympians are never going to be as fast, as strong, or have the same endurance” as the Olympic athletes.” Brooke and his team turned that assumption on its… well… ass, with a campaign that truly disrupted opinion and gave the 2012 Paralympics its highest profile yet.
Meet the superhumans
The script subverted the popular idea at the time that disabled people usually played the bad guys in trashy superhero films by giving them the mantle of “superhuman.” A new script was created that focused on the athletes as they trained, as they competed, and on the moments that led to their disability, whether they were born disabled or whether they become disabled in an accident.
The remarkable original ad tells viewers to “forget everything you thought you knew about strength”, to “forget everything you thought you knew about humans”, and to “meet the superhumans”.
The film is backed by Public Enemy’s song ‘Harder Than You Think’, the winner of “at least” 40 potential soundtracks and the soundtrack was so perfect it gave the otherwise quite deep album cut a new lease of life. Indeed, the campaign also led to the launch of ‘The Last Leg’, which featured the song as its theme and evolved from a commentary show on the Paralympics every night to a weekly late night show for the channel presented by Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and Josh Widdecombe.
Building a legacy
The channel continued the campaign at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, which was “a lot easier” following the “non-straightforward birth” of the first. In 2019, Brooke left Channel 4 to become CEO of Smart Energy GB, handing over the Superhumans legacy to new CMO Zaid Al-Qassab and marketing director Amber Kirby who have committed to keeping the legacy burning for generations to come.
It’s that original magnificent ad, however, that still stands in my mind as the one that really broke the doors down and will still be remembered decades from today.