Paralympics: Channel 4's superhuman effort

Broadcaster's campaign to bring the tournament out of the shadow of its sister Games is an act of branding genius. Simon Usborne hears how it was done

Simon Usborne
Thursday 19 July 2012 11:44 BST

The summer's most exciting sporting event starts not in eight days, but in six weeks, judging by Channel 4's new trailer for its coverage of the Paralympics. Meet the Superhumans is a captivating, 90-second advert featuring members of Britain's Paralympics team. Action footage and stunning slow-motion sequences sandwich hard-hitting scenes of a bomb blast, a car crash and a maternity ward that hint at some of the exceptional stories behind the athletes.

As impressive as the ad is, the huge push given to it by Channel 4 is a clear bid to bring the Paralympics from the sporting wings to centre stage. The trailer, which features the Public Enemy track, "Harder Than You Think", was broadcast at 9pm on Tuesday across 78 channels, including ITV1 and Sky1, in what's known in the trade as a "roadblock".

The blanket approach will continue when the Games start on 29 August, in the biggest marketing operation in Channel 4's 30-year history. The station will broadcast more than 150 hours of competition, surpassing coverage of the 2008 Paralympics by the BBC, which only won radio broadcast rights this year.

Dan Brooke commissioned the ad in his role as Channel 4's marketing and communications chief. He wouldn't reveal its cost, but says the station's commitment (rights alone reportedly cost £9m) will pay off.

"We want people to reassess what they thought the Paralympics is," he says. "It's not an afterthought but an event in its own right." Brooke says reaction on social media on Tuesday was double that seen when the BBC unveiled its Olympics trail during the World Cup final last month. He estimates 10 million people saw the ad, views for which climbed by a thousand an hour on YouTube.

Most effusive in their praise are Paralympians themselves. Jody Cundy is an amputee track cyclist training for his fifth Games. He's won five gold medals, but has been frustrated by the status of his event. "You knew how much work goes into winning medals, but it didn't seem to be conveyed to the public," says Cundy. "You watched Olympians become household names and thought, 'Well, I've done pretty much the same, but without the credit'."

Now, he says, "all of a sudden we're cool. The build-up alone is bigger than the coverage we usually get. It's pretty special".

Tim Hollingsworth, head of the British Paralympic Association, worked with Channel 4 to develop the ad. "We wanted to show that every Paralympic athlete has a story, but that it starts with the sport," he says, adding: "If you can get that reaction to a 90-second ad, what will it be like when people actually watch it?"

But will we watch so soon after the BBC's Olympics broadcasting marathon? Brooke won't be drawn on audience targets but says that, whoever watches, the Paralympics have arguably found a natural home on the alternative public service broadcaster.

"We've always championed minority groups," he says, deflecting criticism the station received for its recent marketing of The Undateables, a match-making show for disabled people. "Three million people watched every episode, which is amazing for a programme with that subject matter," he says. Channel 4 would certainly be happy with that number during the Paralympics.

To decide if you'll be among them, start with the ad:

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