What Do a Fashion Icon and a NASCAR Driver Have in Common?

World Autism Awareness Day design. World with sun and people holding hands around it.Autism Speaks answers this question in a series of touching, personal public-service advertisements (PSAs) meant to raise awareness of autism.

These PSAs are effective for two reasons:

  • Smack-you-in-the-face statistics
  • Personalization

More and more advertisers, in general, understand that making advertising and messaging more personal help keep your audience engaged. Autism Speaks is doing that very well, so far with four stars from various fields:

  • Tommy Hilfiger, fashion icon
  • Jamie McMurray, NASCAR driver
  • Toni Braxton, singer
  • Ernie Els, professional golfer

Each celebrity has a family member with autism. Braxton and Els both have sons diagnosed with the condition.

It’s very powerful to hear the statistics—1 in 110 children will have autism.

Personalization really drives those statistics home. Each star talks about the odds of them making it to their different points of success.

Jamie McMurray says, “The odds of having 157 career top ten finishes in NASCAR—1 in 125 billion. The odds of winning the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same year—1 in 195 million.”

Tommy Hilfiger says, “The odds of opening his own clothing store at the age of 18—1 in 138,000. The odds of achieving his dream in the fashion industry—1 in 23 million.”

These two ads mimic ones done by Toni Braxton and Ernie Els. The only difference is that the newer ads start with animation rather than snapshots of the stars’ lives.

All the videos end with “The odds of having a child with autism—1 in 110.”

Speaking as someone who works in the advertising world, I like these ads for almost the same reason that blogger Landon Bryce hates them—for their use of celebrities.

Landon admits the ads are well-intended, but he also adds that the campaign seems to be making the following point:

You are much more likely to be related to someone with autism than you are to be a celebrity like Tommy Hilfiger or Jamie McMurray.  And even celebrities like them can be related to people with autism!  So being related to someone with autism is both normal and cool, so you should learn the signs that will help you see autism in a family member.

Landon seems to have much more experience than I do with autism and says he has autism as well, so I can understand why he reacted the way he did. But I don’t think the commercials send that message at all. I think the celebrities are used to gain awareness, to make people notice.

Bottom line—and it is a sad one—is that people respond to celebrities more than they would if the ads featured regular, everyday people.

But, I also don’t want Landon’s reaction to these celebrities to overshadow two other important arguments he makes about these ads:

  1. They suggest “all autistic people are unable to speak for ourselves and need family members to speak for us.”
  2. They suggest, “that what really matters about autism is how it affects family members.”

I hope that viewers aren’t going away with those impressions. The autistic spectrum has an extensive range to it, and yes, most autistic people can speak for themselves. At first, I didn’t even consider what autistic people thought of these ads, so I wonder now if others feel the way Landon does. I encourage you to read Landon’s blog and get that view from the other side.

Autism Speaks explains the intent of their campaign:

The PSA campaign was designed to demonstrate the odds of a child reaching milestones parents think about often compared to the much greater chances of being diagnosed with autism. We all dream that our child will one day be a professional athlete or famous musician, but in reality the “Odds” of your child having autism are far greater.

They go on to say that, “The campaign has been a tremendous success, generating over $300 million in donated media, earning numerous awards, and most importantly, serving as a major catalyst to the rise of autism awareness in the general public over the last five years.”

So, I have to believe that most people do see the ads more favorably. Agency BBDO started this campaign (pro bono) back in 2006. The new work involves handmade fabric and paper models brought to life by 3D computer animation. Impressive and creative, the intent was to lull the viewer “into storybook worlds where they witness Hilfiger and McMurray’s respective journeys from humble beginnings down the road to success, before being brought back to reality by the odds of a child being diagnosed with autism.”

It all makes sense to me. Do you think they achieved that? Or do you react in a different way?


April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, and Autism Speaks asks everyone to Light It Up Blue. Cities around the world will turn on blue lights on many of their buildings and landmarks.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s