The campaign, developed with the Advertising Council, which has worked with Autism Speaks since 2005, was created by the New York office of BBDO and LatinWorks of Austin, Tex., both part of the Omnicom Group. The campaign describes early signs of autism in detail and encourages parents to take immediate action if their child does not meet standard developmental milestones.
The new campaign is geared specifically at Hispanic and African-American parents because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current age of diagnosis among these groups, as well as among low-income families, is higher than that of the general public. According to the C.D.C., although the average age now of diagnosis in the United States is 4 to 5 years, a reliable diagnosis can be made as early as 18 to 24 months. And if the disorder is treated from the ages of 3 to 5, from 20 percent to 50 percent of children with autism will be able to attend mainstream kindergarten, according to studies by The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology and The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disorder in the United States. According to a study released last year by the C.D.C., in 2008, one in 88 children was diagnosed with autism by a doctor or other medical professional, a 78 percent increase over 2002. For boys, the ratio was one in 54.
Dr. Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, said the increase in autism diagnoses was partly because of a broadening of the definition of the disorder. She also said environmental risk factors probably affected the increase.
Autism Speaks, founded in 2005 by Bob Wright, former chairman of NBCUniversal, and his wife, Suzanne, whose grandson has autism, took a different tack than before with the new Ad Council campaign. Messages of previous campaigns, also created by BBDO, focused on the numerical odds of children being found to have autism, some with celebrities whose children have autism.
Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the Ad Council, said previous advertising had effectively increased awareness among the general public about the early signs of autism and encouraged parents to speak to their doctors about their children. The new campaign features “realistic situations parents will identify with. I believe they will help more minority parents speak to their doctors if they see the signs and get their children the intervention they need,” she said. So far, autism ads have run in donated time and space worth more than $350 million.
Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks, also said there were “cultural barriers to diagnosis and cultural barriers to access to care among minority communities. We wanted to break down these barriers.”
New print and outdoor advertising features photos that zoom in on the eyes and mouth of infants. One ad says, “You think something may be wrong. The answer is not staring you in the face. Avoiding eye contact is one early sign of autism. Learn the others today at autismspeaks.org/signs. Early diagnosis can make a lifetime of difference.”
Another ad, featuring the closed eye and eyelashes of an infant, asks, “How can a 12-month-old keep you up at night without ever making a sound? No babbling is one early sign of autism,” while a third ad, showing an infant’s mouth, says, “It’s been nearly six months without any big smiles. For either of you. No big, joyful smiles is one early sign of autism.”
TV ads, made in 15- and 30-second versions, show parents and infants. In all cases, the parents offer a variety of excuses for the child’s behavior, like “maybe he’s not a smiler” or “maybe he needs more stimulation.” All spots end with the voice-over saying, “Maybe is all you need to find out more about autism.”
Besides advertising, Autism Speaks will also work with clergy, local community groups, volunteer clinicians and federal and state partners to spread the message to African-American and Hispanic parents. The group also will use text-messaging to encourage parents to learn the signs of autism.
All advertising and texting initiatives have been created in both English and Spanish. LatinWorks advised BBDO on the campaign.
Kirsten Flanik, managing director of BBDO New York, said the new advertising was intended to “reflect the emotions the parents are feeling in an honest way, while still being able to educate them on the signs.”
The advertising also “takes the shame or guilt out of the equation. Parents’ excuses are transformed into an achievable, empowering message of hope,” said Sergio Alcocer, president and chief creative officer of LatinWorks.
Thomas H. Hayden, a lecturer on integrated marketing communications at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said the campaign’s message was “quite clear and very focused,” since it “presents very specific things that parents of infants and toddlers may be concerned with.”
Autism Speaks’ integration of “the media campaign with community-based resources, combined with increasing access to screening, is state-of-the-art,” said Kasisomayajula Viswanath, an associate professor of health communication at the Harvard School of Public Health. He also predicted it would most likely “be effective in not just promoting awareness, but also facilitating action.”
Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, director of the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said the advertising was the first she had seen “with information presented in such a direct manner. It hits home a lot harder for parents who may have these questions in their mind.” Autism Speaks helps finance the center’s research.
She expressed concern, however, about the medical system’s ability to handle additional queries about autism by parents, sin ce she said it was already “over-demanded and undersupplied.”