Commentary

Beyond Stats: Autism PSA Gets 'Closer'

Awareness is half the battle.

When Autism Speaks, a nonprofit focused on prevention, treatment and cure, first teamed with the Ad Council to create an awareness campaign in 2006, one child in 166 would get the disorder.

Today it's one child in 110.

"Every time I hear it, I'm still shocked about the odds," says Ronald Ng, BBDO New York's executive creative director, who developed a new version of the campaign to focus a crucial health aim: Getting parents to acknowledge possible autism in their children. Launched in July, "Autism is Getting Closer to Home" is the slogan for a multimedia effort, which includes TV, radio, print, outdoor and Web ads.

Lasse Halstrom, director of Hollywood films such as "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Chocolat," directed the TV spot. It opens with a teenager saying, "I think someone at my friend's school has this thing called autism." The picture then morphs to a later image of the same man saying, "My friend's brother's son has autism. A still older image says, "My neighbor's son has autism." The man appears in the last scene as a father saying, "My son has autism." A 15-second version conveys the same idea using only words.

Each image in the PSA cleverly illustrates the campaign's slogan by visually demonstrating how autism moves closer to home. As powerful as the 30-second spot is, the 15-second version is even stronger. The viewer sees the words "My friend's uncle's cousin has autism" on a computer screen. An unseen editor deletes words from the sentence until the final message reads, "My son has autism."

While most of the characters in the spot are actors, the final image features a real father and his autistic son. This gives the campaign an authentic edge, however emotionally scary. It's also somewhat misleading. Autism affects "nearly 1% of the population," per Dana Marnane, national director of awareness and events for Autism Speaks That's a tragedy for families, and early detection could be crucial in changing lives.

But slugging the campaign "closer to home" may suggest a tilted scenario. "Your uncle's cousin's friend" isn't a connect-the-dots six degrees of separation; it's a numerical stretch.

Still, Ng has succeeded with his goal. "We wanted to make this campaign very real," he says, "and we wanted a director who had a heart for this cause."

Having a real face in the spot helps people "feel what a person would go through if they had to deal with this disorder," Ng says. "We wanted to dramatize getting people to look into the eyes of a person from the time he was a teenager and did not know or care about the problem."

Beyond the father and son, Ng says that six people on the PSA's production team either had a family member with autism or knew someone affected by the disorder. Real passion for the cause went into creating this effort, and the heartfelt feeling shows in the final work, which is neither sentimental nor sappy.

The first campaign in 2006 promoted awareness. This second effort prompts people to take action, driving audiences to the Autism Speaks Web site to learn about the signs of autism and how to get help.

Centers for Disease Control research chart autism as the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the U.S. Despite its prevalence, many parents with young children know little about it.

Autism Speaks officials say the results from the first campaign encouraged them to apply to the Ad Council for a second round. Some 40% of parents with young children reported seeing at least one PSA in the first campaign, and about 19% said they spoke to a doctor or health-care professional about the problem, according to Ad Council figures.

"We started explaining that autism is more common than people think, and that they need to know the science," says Marnane. "If you don't know someone with autism now, you will."

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