dentsumcgarrybowen adds complexity to children’s stories for dyslexia awareness

Who: Dyslexia Canada and dentsumcgarrybowen Canada, with dentsu Studios and Isobar.

What: “It’s hard to read,” a bilingual dyslexia awareness campaign. It’s the agency’s first work for the organization. As is the case with so many cause-related assignments, it came about through an agency staffer’s personal connection to the neurological condition.

When & Where: Timed to coincide with National Family Literacy day, the campaign broke today across radio, print and out-of-home. All of ads drive to a website called, which features information on dyslexia presented in a way that underscores the challenges faced by people who have the neurological condition.

Why: Dyslexia is a common but misunderstood condition that afflicts one in five people, including an estimated 750,000 Canadian students.

It’s a condition that can complicate lives beyond simple reading comprehension. For example, according to Dyslexia Canada, 50% of adults with low literacy levels live below the poverty line, and 60% of adolescents in drug and alcohol rehab programs have some form of learning disability.

The goal here is to sensitize the public around what dyslexia entails and its broader societal impact. “There’s very little understanding or awareness around dyslexia, around the consequences for people who suffer from it, and the wider effects on society,” said Stephen Kiely, president and CEO of dentsumcgarrybowen and creative chair, dentsu. “We wanted to allow Canadians consuming the content to empathize and feel what it feels like to be dyslexic. Empathy-based advertising was the goal.”

How:  Outlining the problems faced by people with dyslexia could theoretically have been achieved by simply transposing some letters in copy. Instead, the creative team wanted viewers and listeners to empathize with people who have the condition by showing how it can make even simple text challenging to read.

The creative turns basic text—in this case well-known fairytales—into something almost indecipherable. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” for example, becomes “Gilded Coiffure and the Ursine Ternary,” while “Little Red Riding Hood” becomes “The Diminutive Crimson-Clad Maiden.”

The radio ads employ a similar strategy, with a narrator introducing a fairytale with everyday words replaced with far more complicated language. The story of the three little pigs begins with the narrator intoning “‘Grant me ingress into your domicile,’ demanded the lupine aggressor. ‘We refuse to acquiesce,’ came the rejoinder from the triumvirate of swine.” The ads finish with a voiceover by a young boy: “When you’re dyslexic, no story is simple,” that drives to the website.

It’s a strategy that lends itself well to future executions, said Kiely. “We were quite purposeful in designing the campaign for longevity,” he said. “There’s a big job to be done here; for us this is not a one and done job. For us this is just the beginning.”

And we quote: “For a person with dyslexia, the printed word can seem like a foreign language that everyone but you understands. Dentsumcgarrybowen immediately understood the gravity of the situation and the dire impact of the lack of awareness and understanding. We are grateful for the time dentsumcgarrybowen took to really listen and understand that dyslexia is more than just reversing letters or scrambling words.” — Keith Gray, chair, Dyslexia Canada


Chris Powell