Region(s): North America
Issue(s): Health
Author: Tony Foleno Sponsoring organization: NGO Organization(s): Autism Speaks
Ad Council
Agency: BBDO New York Contact: Tony Foleno tfoleno@adcouncil.org

Related Campaigns

Campaign Info

Scope of Good Practice

The Autism Awareness campaign is a national, long-running public education campaign targeting parents of children under the age of six. The campaign has involved multiple rounds of creative assets (including TV, radio, newspaper and magazine, outdoor, alternative and digital) as well as public relations, media outreach, events and social media programs. Its consistent message, utilizing a strategy focused on raising awareness about prevalence and single-minded creative, has helped to change beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of the target audience.

The Problem Addressed by the Campaign

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United States, affecting 1 out of every 110 children under the age of 10. The complex brain disorder inhibits a person’s ability to communicate, respond to surroundings and form relationships. Few parents, however, are aware of the early signs of autism, especially during its initial stages, when appropriate treatment could make a critical difference in a child’s development. Acknowledging the possibility of autism is not something that most parents are eager to do, and denial is common.

Background Research

To better understand the current mindset about autism, the team conducted in-person interviews and focus groups with parents. The groups ranged across geographic locations and social strata, but they revealed some striking similarities. No one knew how to recognize the early signs of autism. And when there was awareness, it was limited — coming from sources such as the movie "Rain Man."

One finding that stood out was that mothers who were somewhat aware of autism tended to have a greater fear of the term. They also tended to dismiss it as something that “happens to somebody else,” even when their own young children showed potential signs of the disorder. It became apparent that there was a disabling fear among parents regarding autism, a fear that led them to tune out information. By contrast, parents were receptive to general statistics about the prevalence of the disorder.


As a result of these research findings, the campaign strategy focused on the soaring incidence of autism. Once parents were educated that autism is more common than they realized, they would then be considerably more receptive to essential information about early intervention


The creative articulation of this strategy is the “Odds” campaign. Public education ads developed by BBDO compared the odds of a child having autism to the odds of typical concerns or dreams parents have for their children. A spot for television and radio featured a little girl singing and dancing to “Twinkle, Twinkle.” A voiceover contrasted her odds of becoming a Broadway star — 1 in 11,000  with the much greater odds of her being a child diagnosed with autism.

Since the original launch of the “Odds” campaign, new PSAs have been released, telling the stories of celebrities who have a child with autism in their lives. These ads demonstrate the low odds of success for these individuals in their respective fields  Toni Braxton, Ernie Els, Tommy Hilfiger and Jamie McMurray  and contrast the far more likely odds of a child having autism.


The campaign was initially launched nationwide among broadcast outlets in April 2006. Ads were sent to and promoted among more than 33,000 U.S. media outlets. As with all Ad Council campaigns, advertising time and space were entirely donated by the media. Additionally, the Ad Council distributed a Bites and B-roll (BBR) package to local television news media in the top 40 markets nationwide. To further support the launch, Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright and former Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Jose Cordero participated in a satellite media tour and radio media tour, while additional outreach was conducted to media and advertising trade publications with press releases and other background material. A three-minute video web package with information about the campaign was sent via email to key stakeholders and partners of both Autism Speaks and BBDO. Since then, several new rounds of advertising and public relations programs have been initiated, employing many of the same tactics as the 2006 launch.

From 2006 to 2011, the campaign has consistently been a top performer among the 50 active Ad Council campaigns in terms of donated media. The “Odds” campaign has received almost $286 million in donated media to date.


Direct response via the web: Autism Speaks saw a dramatic rise in traffic to its website. Over five years, the site has received more than 19 million visitors, and visits correlate strongly with donated media trends for the PSAs.

Awareness, attitudes and behaviors: The Ad Council conducted nationally representative tracking surveys among parents of young children every six months following the campaign launch in 2006. These studies show striking increases in the percentage of parents who were aware of and knowledgeable about autism.

In the five years that the campaign has been active, awareness of messages about autism has risen from 40 percent to 55 percent. Parents surveyed also said they were hearing more about autism than they had a year ago (37 percent to 57 percent). Parents in 2010 were significantly more likely to say autism was important to them personally than in 2006 (55 percent to 64 percent). Additionally, important gains were seen in the number of people who understood the prevalence of autism as a result of the PSAs: more parents said autism is very or somewhat common (45 percent to 68 percent). Encouragingly, those who recognized at least one PSA were 2.6 times more likely to say that autism is common.

Parents are also increasingly likely to take action as a result of the campaign. Over time, more said they spoke to others about autism (36 percent to 43 percent), visited websites to get information (16 percent to 23 percent) and spoke with a doctor or other healthcare professional about the developmental disorder (8 percent to 19 percent). In addition, the number of parents who claimed they “don’t really think about autism too much” decreased significantly — from 58 percent before the “Odds” campaign to 43 percent.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Perhaps no other childhood disorder has come into the American public’s eye as quickly and widely as autism. The key to success has been a clear and single-minded strategy, focused on creative ways to alert parents to the growing prevalence of autism. The other key has been extraordinary, sustained donated media support, extending the reach of the campaign via multiple media touch points. The “Odds” campaign has successfully made autism a more common subject for family discussion. Considering the widespread nature of the disorder, such action could potentially benefit nearly 2 million children in the U.S., significantly improving the health and welfare of future generations.

Additional Creative Examples

Radio PSA: Tony Braxton (:30)

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