I’ve recently been interviewed for a research study on how the Paralympics has changed public perceptions of disability, particularly the role of brands and sponsorship. Taking part challenged my own perceptions of disability and even the role of branding. And here’s how.
What did the broadcasting say to me?
I was hooked by Channel 4’s trail campaign Meet the Superhumans featuring Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think. It was fresh, emotive and epic. More like a movie trailer it blew the BBC’s animation sequence into touch. But then came the coverage, where unfortunately the quality and production values didn’t live up to my expectations or the standard set by the BBC (ignoring Gary Lineker’s interview technique that is).
Channel 4 was so keen to secure the Paralympic coverage that it bid £9million for it – three times more than the BBC – and won the bid through their commitment to broadcast more coverage. But I wish both events had been on an even footing. The Channel 4 brand has been known for being ‘alternative’ for as long as I can remember, so the fact the Paralympics were broadcast there and not on the ‘British Broadcasting Channel’ signals a clear difference rather than demonstrating equality.
Which sponsors stuck in my head?
What I found most interesting from being interviewed was which sponsorships stuck with me over others, and the clear role of branding in securing the connection.
First comes Atos, whose brand association with the Paralympics stays with me for the all wrong reasons. Their controversial involvement in work capability assessments dented their reputation as a worthy and credible sponsor.
I remember Sainsbury’s more than any other brand. Possibly because it made a decision to sponsor only the Paralympics. I also clock them as a sponsor because I remember their TV adverts and the powerful end-frame and strong brand colours. I also remember the voice over by David Beckham, with irritation, as I thought it should have been a Paralympic athlete instead.
BT was also one of the main Paralympic sponsors, but is not a brand I clearly associated with it. There are several reasons for this. Firstly it is not a brand that’s part of my life so is more likely to pass me by than Sainsbury’s, which is a brand I consciously buy into as a customer. Secondly I remember BT for their sponsorship of BT Live events and screenings in Hyde Park during the Olympics, so the brand association in my mind is specific, much like I associate McDonalds with training the Games Makers. Finally, their adverts broadcast at the start and end of ad breaks didn’t stick in my head because they relied heavily on the logo for brand association, with no clearly branded end frame and no other distinguishable visual assets to help drive a deeper connection.
Will perceptions of disability change?
Just last week I read that bullying and abuse faced by people with disabilities has gone up based on police figures. Multiple Paralympic athletes, including 24-year old equestrian champion Sophie Christiansen, have also highlighted how far there is to go in improving employment rights and access to transport. “I wouldn’t be able to live in London because of access and the big companies weren’t willing to give me a bit of extra help” says Sophie.
There is no doubt that the London 2012 Paralympics was a success commercially. 6.3million watched Jonnie Peacock win his 100m gold, the biggest ever Paralympic sport audience. 65% of viewers say the coverage has had a positive impact on their perceptions of disability. But as the Paralympics is just one moment in time, will the shift in perceptions stick or continue to improve?
It’s all well and good for Paralympic sponsors to splash the cash to positively benefit their brand, but do they walk the talk? When I questioned one big corporate sponsor about their disability policies and employment record I drew a blank, which is telling.
Perceptions and indeed dedication to the Paralympic sport clearly varies across the globe, America being a clear example with a gap between their Olympic and Paralympic medal table positions (1st and 6th) and criticism of NBC’s coverage. Compare that to the Ukraine (4th and 14th) who excelled at the Paralympics, thanks in part to Valeriy Sushkevych, a disabled swimmer turned politician, who argued for a separate Paralympic sport budget and national centre.
What would I like to see?
I have no doubt that the Paralympics, coverage and indeed sponsorship by mainstream everyday brands will help to shift perceptions of disability. But I worry about momentum. There is so much talk about the legacy of the Olympics and its ability to inspire a generation. But does this include perceptions of disability?
I would love to live in a society where those with disabilities are seen as people first and foremost. A society where people focus on independence, achievement and ability rather than disability. There is a clear role for disability charities in achieving this, together as a sector and with corporate and commercial sponsors. For that reason I’d like to see a collective effort to seize the moment and mount a campaign that builds on the Paralympic momentum.
Channel 4, Atos, Sainsbury’s, BT, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Scope, Mencap, Shaw Trust and everyone else participating, sponsoring and spectating, let’s never forget how far we came in just two weeks. Let’s see ability in the future, not disability.
Dan is The Good Agency's Head of Brand – and an expert on brand identities for third-sector organisations.