Super heroes among us: A brief discussion of using the superhero genre to promote Paralympic Games and athletes

Prof Cody T. Havard

Professor of Sport Commerce at The University of Memphis, where he researches rivalry in consumer settings to better understand its impact on group membership and society. He also produces and hosts the Being a Fan of Disney Podcast with Cody T. Havard, Ph.D.

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Leading up to both Olympic and Paralympic Games, athletes are featured in advertisements via print and television mediums, and their triumphs furthered celebrated during the Games as a way to promote sponsors and the Olympic Movement. For example, advertisements in the United States promoting the Tokyo Games featured both Olympians and Paralympians side-by-side, possibly drawing on the original intent of the Paralympic Movement and meaning of para. However, some sponsors and advertisers have paid more attention to the unique Paralympian experience in order to promote the Games, leading to some utilizing the comic and super hero genres to promote the Paralympic games and participants at various points. Form a fan and observer of super heroes rather than an expert on athletes living with disabilities, this commentary focuses on a brief discussion of this approach in promoting Paralympians and the Paralympic Games.  

The super hero genre and people with disabilities

Marvel and DC brands are typically the first that come to mind when people hear the words comics and super heroes, and the stories offered by these two companies have helped reach and teach many within our shared society. For example, academics have long studied comics and the superhero genre as ways to teach about philosophystorytelling, and the social experience. Further, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been used to various ends, including helping researchers navigate academic writing and students acclimating to college

The superhero genre, and comics in general, have also been utilized to reach, teach, and inspire readers with disabilities. Brent Moeshlin outlined the importance of using comics to help children with disabilities cope, learn about, and adapt to their surroundings. He pointed out that while DC introduced the first super hero with a recognized disability in 1941, Marvel Comics featured thirteen such characters to DC’s five through the 2000’s, while also introducing parents of children with disabilities that have produced comics aimed at inspiring readers. Further, more super heroes living with disabilities have been incorporated into current and future storytelling and live-action projects, and Marvel recently profiled a number of children living with disabilities in the Disney+ series Marvel’s Hero Project. Finally, a joint venture between the Superhero Series and Marvel led to the creation of the Find Your Power Challengeto encourage physical activity to people living with disabilities in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The super hero genre and promotion of the Paralympic Games

Sponsors, content providers, and organizers have often used the comic and super hero genres to promote the Paralympic Games and para athetes. Leading up to the 2012 London Games, the fantastical character Mandeville, mascot of the Paralympic Games, honored the birthplace of the Paralympic Movement. Additionally, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 utilized the Meet the Superhumans advertising campaign to promote the Paralympic Games by portraying Paralympic athletes as individuals with super human or super hero qualities. This campaign has subsequently been updated and used for the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. In preparation for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, sponsor United Airlines produced content where United States Olympic and Paralympic athletes were featured in comic book form alongside individuals from the airline company, and the Paralympic Jumpwas released in Japan in 2017 to prepare fans for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. 

The use of the comic and super hero genres has not come without critique from popular culture writers and academics. For example, the English Federation of Disability in Sport conducted a media survey on the promotion of the Paralympic Games, and found that terms such as superhumanhero, and brave could serve as offensive to people living with disabilities. Further, in 2021, John Evans of System1 came to a similar conclusion, and actually found that people living with disabilities responded more positively to a Toyota commercial which told the story of United States Paralympic swimmer Jessica Lang than other messages portraying participants in super human or super hero light. Finally, Anoma van der Veere analyzed the promotional discourse in Japan surrounding the Tokyo Paralympic Games and concluded that narratives using the super hero genres may work to individualize rather than focus on larger issues faced by people living with disabilities. 

As we move beyond the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, and begin our focus on future Games, how will advertisers work to promote viewership of the events and the Movement? Potentially by way of leagues such as the National Basketball Association and United States College Football using the comic and super hero genres for promotional purposes, sponsors and advertisers believed the same methods would pay tribute to Paralympic athletes and people living with disabilities. However, with data to suggest that such promotion may negatively impact the target audience, it is important to study how stakeholders choose to navigate promotion of future Paralympic Games and athletes.