The Organic Marketer

Special Olympics Targets “SM” in New Campaign

Ads were designed by BBDO New York to challenge the public with language meant to be controversial. Slurs against ethnic groups points out how language can be harmful to all groups, including those with intellectual disabilities.

Ads were designed by BBDO New York to challenge the public with language meant to be controversial. Slurs against ethnic groups points out how language can be harmful to all groups, including those with intellectual disabilities.

This past March 31st was a significant day for the Special Olympics, not only as the launch of their national campaign, “Spread the Word to End the Word,” but also in the way they’ve embraced social media to inform the public, attract and retain supporters and spur on advocates to spread the word (the right one, that is!) and gain even more followers.

For those don’t know what “the word” refers to, it’s “retard,” the demeaning slang that refers to those afflicted that we now tend to term being mentally challenged or with intellectual disabilities.

The Special Olympics has been battling aggressively since last August when the movie, “Tropic Thunder,” caused controversy with its comedic use of the word. President Obama didn’t help matters when, on a recent appearance on Jay Leno’s TV show, he inadvertently brought the issue to light by stating that his poor bowling skills were “like the Special Olympics or something.”

According to a recent Chicago Tribune story, recent efforts to quash this term stemmed from a youth summit held at the Special Olympics Winter Games in Idaho this past February. Kirsten Seckler, spokeswoman for Special Olympics, said the idea for the “spread the word to end the word” campaign was wholly the work of kids — with disabilities and without — who were at the games.

Since then, BBDO New York has done excellent pro bono work to establish the campaign’s messaging and provide creative direction. Andrew Robertson, president and chief executive at BBDO Worldwide, has been on the board of the Special Olympics for five years. According to Robertson, the campaign was targeted to older teenagers in high school and early college and devised to be provocative enough to “jolt them into thinking, or rethinking, how hurtful the use of the word is.”

While the Special Olympics has used the traditional promotional methods you might expect, such as print ads (mostly targeting high school- and college-aged students), t-shirts, buttons and stickers, the most intriguing — and undeniably effective — efforts have come from the use of online social marketing and viral distribution strategies.

It’s the creativity and effectiveness of various social media that drew the attention of this blogger and elicited a review and commentary of some of the organization’s more notable efforts. Hopefully, these observations provide interest for followers of this blog and perhaps kindle inventive imitation in your own company or organization’s social marketing endeavors.

Web Site
The creation of a new web site,, focused the campaign’s message and put the true purpose of this crusade — bringing to the forefront, everyone’s pledge not to use this despicable word in conversation nor written communication. The web site encourages visitors to sign a pledge (and keeps accurate count — over 42,000 as of the writing of this article), create and post videos on YouTube and provides resources for grass roots-type movements to keep advocates on-message and virally adding additional supporters.

The site provides the predictable links to other social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and there’s even easy-to-use HTML coding to copy and paste into your web site or blog that will make a support graphic show up and link back to the web site.

But the web site goes a bit farther in garnering champions to the cause by hosting a “Be a Fan” contest where supporters produce their own 30-second video advertisement or Public Service Announcement — even encouraging a multinational approach by stating that, though the term “retard” is an English word, international supporters should target the word in their own native language (for instance, in German, the term is “behindi”). The web site shows an example of a wonderful Flash-based ad where site visitors can watch the video (as well as others), e-mail it to friends, flag and rate it, share it via social ranking/sharing sites and post comments.

The main video on this wonderfully visual branded online channel has been viewed over 8,200 times and the page encourages visitors to donate online via Google Checkout (you select from pre-determined donation amounts of $5 to $100, then proceed to a simple online credit card-transaction process). The channel includes playlists of organization-picked favorite videos, a video blog (vlog), channel comments, the ability to connect with the organization via e-mail, oportunities to interact with others by adding a comment to a video, share the channel with others, add the channel as a YouTube friend and add the channel to your iGoogle page. Talk about integrating into your social network!

There were two accounts we found online. The first one, FanCommunity, hosted the hashtag discussion, #rword, which seems very, very active with many posts. While Followers were fairly low, it seems like the account is gaining fans quickly. The first account featured running updates on how many pledges they have, RTs of article comments and links, links to press coverage and encouragements to make the pledge.

The second Twitter account, EndTheWord, was much better branded to the overall campaign and seemed to be more focused on buildng support than recapping media coverage. In fact, a tweet on this blog author’s Twitter page about the upcoming release of this article was met with some Direct Messages from this account asking how the article was coming along and when it would be posted.

Facebook was a natural method of rallying support and encouraging people — especially high school- and college-aged students — to get behind this important cause. There are currently over 18,000 fans (talk about a marketer’s dream distribution list!), embedded Flickr galleries, Facebook photo albums and videos, and updates nearly daily and including everything from invites to Twitter Tweetchats, posted links to celebrity support messages, YouTube channel updates, speech and video recaps, press coverage recaps and links to offsite content.

An event was even created, End the r-Word Day 3.31.09, with over 16,000 confirmed Facebook members virtually attending (and another 7,000+ indicating “maybe”). The event was targeted more to college students with a list of colleges and universities hosting on-campus support events that day.

Online Youth Rally
The 50-minute rally, streamed live on, featured actor Eddie Barbanell from the hit movie “The Ringer,” Special Olympics athletes and volunteers, and original music performed by rap artist Rush. Also on the program were original videos produced by young people. To make grass roots-tpe promotion even easier for supporters, materials are made available online to download, including:

  • t-shirt and button graphics
  • cards, fliers and posters
  • a graffiti board mock-up
  • press releases and letter to the editor template
  • fact sheets
  • event and activation ideas (among traditional ideas such as holding an event or rally at school and other grass roots-type promotions, the idea sheet suggests that supporters take an active part in online discussions and creating a video for YouTube and sharing the link with others)
  • key messages and talking points
  • online engagement tips (includes comprehensive list of “influencer sites”)
  • scripts, viral e-mail examples

What’s certainly true is that the Special Olympics is bringing the media and methods that its target audience — older teenagers and young adults –identifies with and responds to in combating the everyday use of this dehumanizing word. Special attention to supporter-created videos with hard-hitting, personal messages, combined with the viral distribution channels on Facebook and Twitter nearly guarantee it widespread attention and action. We can only hope.


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