An autism diagnosis doesn't have to be devastating, especially if made early. To raise awareness for that early detection and to mark World Autism Awareness month, agency BBDO New York and Autism Speaks have created a multi-brand commercial that urges parents to look for early signs. At first glance, the spot, directed by Christian Loubek of Anonymous Content, appears to be four separate ads: a PSA for Autism Speaks, followed by ads for Band-Aid, and AT&T Wireless. In fact, the ads are meant to show a young boy, whose autism was detected early, growing up and living a healthy life.
"The average viewer won’t notice right away that these are linked commercials, but the point is to re-watch and notice new connections each time," says Dave Rolfe, head of Integrated Production at BBDO New York.
The parents are the same actors in each commercial. They, along with the setting, are aged to show the passage of time. The packing boxes and scant decorating in the first segment (a PSA for Autism Speaks) implies new parents who have moved into a new house. The final AT&T spot, about the son's high school graduation, "features a living room that has been adapted by middle age parents," says Rolfe.
Rolfe suggests that viewers watch the ad series at least twice in order to see how each segment demonstrates new progress in the boy's life.
"We’re not hitting people over the head," he says. "We could have used overt product placement or made the [narrative technique] more obvious, but then we would have compromised our core concept of using a sequence of commercial messaging to tell one story."
The commercial aired first on CNN, but there are no further plans to show the spot on TV. "I don't see this narrative style getting adopted for television," Rolfe says. Still, he says, "everyone wants to innovate." Ten years ago he believes it would have been much more difficult to convince each of these brands to share narrative space.
In casting the commercials, BBDO started with the father—who happens to be the real dad of Reece Bowen, autistic teenage boy featured in the AT&T spot (you can see an interview with the pair following the spot). "It’s my favorite moment in the series of commercials, because it’s real," says Rolfe. "He was a success of early diagnosis."