When you’re on a panel with Paddy Power, the gleefully controversial marketing spokesman of the eponymous bookmaker, it’s hard to be the most outspoken person on stage. But Dan Brooke, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Channel 4 managed to cut through by laying down a direct challenge to the advertising industry.
Speaking at the Channel 4 Leadership Breakfast at legendary jazz venue Ronnie Scotts, as part of Advertising Week Europe, Brooke took ad agencies and brands to task for their dismal lack of inclusion of disabled people in commercials.
“It’s almost as if disabled people don’t exist in adland, I’m sorry to say,” he said, pointing out that in the UK disabled people make up a sizeable chunk of the population (18% of England’s population, 9.4 million people, are disabled
) and yet, with a couple of exceptions, are almost entirely missing from adland.
He also revealed that Channel 4 is offering up £1 million of free ad space to encourage the industry to take a more representative approach to writing and casting people with disabilities. Agencies and brands are invited to submit scripts featuring disability – the winning idea will get free air time, including a debut during the advertising break of the Paralympic Games 2016 opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.
Dan Brooke was joined on stage by AMV BBDO’s Joint Chief Strategy Officer Craig Mawdsley, Paddy Power, presenter of Channel 4 show The Last Leg Alex Brooker and host Ade Adepitan, a presenter and former Paralympian (and the star of the famous Playstation Double Life campaign). The early morning panel was gathered to talk about risk in advertising.
The discussion kicked off with a discussion of Channel 4’s ‘Born Risky’ strategy, including the satirical ‘Gay Mountain’ spot that showed support for Russia’s LGBTQ community during the Sochi Winter Olympics and the multi-award winning ‘Meet the Superhumans’ campaign for its 2012 Paralympic coverage, which showed disabled athletes in an unprecedented strong and unflinching light.
“2012 was the best thing that happened to anyone involved in it. That’s a blessing and a curse,” said Dan who said the team at Channel 4 had been feeling the pressure to live up to their previous success. He said that the watershed moment of Meet the Superhumans and the ‘giant leap forward’ that it achieved in terms of public perceptions about disability was unlikely to be replicated, so this year’s effort will take a different approach. “At the heart of it it’s going to redefine the word ‘superhuman’ so it does not just apply to athletes but all people with disabilities.”
Talking risk and disability, the conversation soon rounded on the controversial Paddy Power Oscar Pistorius ad, which offered ‘money back if he walks’.
After a short clip of comedian and Last Leg host Adam Hill laying into the brand for exploiting a murder for commercial gain, Power defended the spot saying that it was appropriate given the context.
“I’ll tell you why it’s good, its good because it’s a reaction. You want to provoke a reaction and the best thing about that ad is that everyone either really hated it or really defended it because, ‘get off your high horse it’s fine’. It was very divisive, which is a dangerous place to go,” he said. “In the context of it, that means everything…”
Craig Mawdsley then interjected about the difference between a stand up comic walking the line and a big brand which potentially stands to benefit commercially.
“There obviously is a line but no one knows where it is, an invisible line, and you only find it when you cross it. If you never cross it you’re probably not close enough to it,” said Power.
The panel also discussed the fact that controversy and cut through are harder to achieve as audiences become more tolerant. With the infamous ‘Rainbow Laces’ stunt, in which Paddy Power and Stonewall sent rainbow coloured football boot laces to Premiership players, Power revealed that the bookie had handed the campaign wholly over to Stonewall now it’s been accepted by the establishment.
“It’s really quite hard to get a reaction these day, not only because of the ability to reach the audience but people are generally not so easily offended these days. You can make things that are hugely controversial,” said AMV BBDO’s Mawdsley.
“We made a film with Guinness with Gareth Thomas last year, about the story of him opening up to his team mates. Ten years ago if you had suggested that to the marketing director of a beer company they’d have thought you were crazy, whereas nowadays you put it out there and you get nothing but universal acclaim. And you’re kind of thinking… a bit more of a punchy reaction would have helped.”
But while huge strides have been made with acceptance of LGBT representation in ads and Channel 4 is now actively trying to increase inclusion for people with disabilities via the new competition as well as internal schemes for hiring talent, one frontier that remains is the portrayal of mental health issues and non-visible impairments on screen.
Presenter Alex Brooker revealed that he felt attempts to talk about mental health on his own show (one that features two presenters with physical disabilities) ‘were the one place we’d failed’.
As for adland, Mawdsley said that the industry would have to think creatively. “How you get that across in what is quite a quick-read, visual medium is very hard,” he said, saying it’s an issue to which he’d given a lot of thought.
Rounding up the morning’s debate, host Ade Adepitan signed off by telling the audience ‘”Be brave, go for that million quid and remember your core values.”