Canadian Paralympic Committee pivots to a different inspiring message

With this year's games postponed, athletes use their experience with "the world changing overnight" to give Canadians a sense of hope.

If anyone can understand the idea of one’s life changing in an instant – like individuals around the world have experienced with COVID-19 – it’s Paralympic athletes.

Canadian Paralympians – like 40-year-old wheelchair basketball player Bo Hedges and 29-year-old Para-canoer Andrea Nelson – both understand the emotional and physical challenges of their world changing overnight. When Hedges was a teenager, he fell out of a tree and severed his spinal cord. In 2017, Nelson fractured her spine after mistiming a landing while skydiving.

A new 30-second PSA campaign from the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) encapsulates why the current crisis is an experience that might feel familiar to those with disabilities. The spot shows a series of portrait shots of Paralympic athletes, with their voice-overs describing how they “know what it’s like for your whole world to change overnight” due to circumstances beyond your control and to “not be able to put a date on things getting easier.” But they assure you, at the end, “one day, they will.”

“It’s our way to give back to the people who have supported our athletes, by giving them hope,” says Martin Richard, executive director of communications and brand at the CPC. “We wanted to share a message that was true and authentic to many of our Paralympians’ journeys, of facing circumstances that weren’t called for, moving beyond that, breaking those barriers and dealing with that change, and making things better.”

Two days before the International Olympic Committee and the country of Japan officially announced the postponement of the 2020 games on Mar. 24, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the CPC announced they would both not be sending teams to the games in July, due to COVID-19 risks. This changed the marketing strategy and plans for the CPC. Richard says the CPC had “a brilliant brand campaign” ready to go into production that had to be paused. What they were going to communicate “completely changed” as well.

“Typically, our medium is through sport…we make them realize that obstacles can be overcome when we showcase our athletes in a sporting environment,” Richard says. “We felt that we would look at the journey of our athletes – who they are as people, and share that with the world.”

He adds that the CPC has captured a lot of content in anticipation of showcasing their athletes, but a lot of the content may not be relevant for future games. “The challenge with that is we don’t know what our true reality will be in a year.”

Even though this year’s games have been cancelled, the themes of excellence, inspiration and camaraderie that have been hallmarks of previous CPC campaigns – highlighted by telling stories of the athletes themselves – could still be put to use, says Rebecca Flaman, SVP and business director at BBDO.

“We wanted to figure out how we can best serve our fellow Canadians – which now has become a greater team Canada – sharing the experiences we feel can give hope,” she says. “That’s why we engaged the athletes themselves, just to provide a sense of camaraderie amongst Canadians – although, we’re all apart and isolated in our own homes.”

BBDO Canada and its in-house production arm Ricochet created the campaign, which launched on Thursday. The campaign will be on all of its digital and social channels, as well as through CBC’s digital channels. Corporate sponsors, like Canadian Tire, will also promote the campaign through their digital channels.