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Lowe makes 'Balbir Pasha' a conversation point on AIDS

By , agencyfaqs! | In | November 29, 2002
The mass media AIDS awareness campaign for PSI/India uses a fictitious character, Balbir Pasha, to increase the perception of risk among migrant workers in metros


'Balbir Pasha ko AIDS hoga kya?'

For roughly a fortnight now, this question has been screaming at the citizens of Mumbai, from hoardings and bus shelters, and on FM radio and television. Cast in the mould of an archetypal teaser campaign, the ads reveal nothing about the product or service being advertised. But given the purport of the question - and the intriguing nature of the name 'Balbir Pasha' - the campaign has generated a fair amount of interest. Who is Balbir Pasha, it's being asked. And of all things, usko AIDS kyon hoga?

As far as the man-in-the-street is concerned, these questions will get answered on December 01, the day the theme campaign breaks. For the industry, which would be more interested in knowing what is being advertised, here are some answers.

Balbir Pasha is a fictitious character created by Lowe for PSI/India's (Population Services International) new mass media AIDS prevention campaign. PSI, a non-profit and non-governmental organization with interests in the fields of reproductive health, HIV/AIDS prevention, and maternal and child health, is headquartered in Washington DC, and works in over 60 countries across the globe. PSI/India is Delhi-based.

"This mass media campaign is a part of PSI's Operation Lighthouse Project, a five-year national HIV/AIDS (awareness) programme in 12 major port communities across India," explains Kavita Jayaram, communications manager, PSI/India. "We have unveiled the first phase of the campaign in Mumbai, and depending upon the response we get, we are planning to take it to other port cities such as Vizag (Vishakhapattanam), Chennai, Kolkata etc."

The campaign is certainly the first of its kind in India. For one, never has any communication for AIDS in this country been treated as a full-fledged 'branding exercise', so to say. Multiple teaser ads across media, a three-commercial theme campaign, a fictitious character to get the public hooked… But what is most out of place - and welcome - is the engaging tone of the campaign, very different from the heavy-handed sermonizing systemic to 'public awareness' campaigns.

It all started with the client brief. "We had tonnes of data on AIDS in India and how people are at risk, but we didn't want to spout all that. We just wanted the agency to remember that the target audience knows about AIDS, but believes that 'It cannot happen to me'," says Jayaram.

"The target audience (male migrant workers in the 18-40 age group, belonging to SEC C, D and E1, in the metros, especially port cities, where incidence of unprotected sex with non-regular partners is high) has been exposed to a lot of communication on AIDS," Priti Nair, creative director, Lowe, explains. "However, they have certain false assumptions/excuses for not using condoms when visiting brothels. And because of these assumptions, they feel they are not exposed to AIDS." Risk perceptions are blurred by beliefs ranging from 'If the woman looks healthy she must be safe' to 'I have sex with only one person (a 'regular') so I am safe'. And unprotected-sex-under-alcoholic-influence is another oft-repeated excuse. "These people sincerely believe they cannot contract AIDS," says Nair.

When you're up against such a belief, the less preachy you get, the better, the agency felt. "One interesting thing we realized is that our audience has heard of other people contracting AIDS," Balki (R Balakrishnan), executive creative director, Lowe, takes up. "So what we did was create this character, drawn from their socio-cultural milieu, who would become an example of sorts. We would talk about him and the possibility of him contracting AIDS. Through him, we would proffer and demolish the very arguments that our audience believes in. It's human tendency to listen when we're talking about somebody else. That way, we would not be directly telling our audience they are at risk (because they don't want to be preached at), but as he mirrors them, they can relate to the character and figure out things for themselves." Parable format.

The first of the theme ads, for instance, is set in a bar where two friends are tottering on the brink of intoxication. 'Balbir Pasha ko AIDS hoga kya?' one asks suddenly. The other tells him, 'Tere jaisa rahenga toh hoenga.' (Yes, if he behaves the way you do.) He then explains that if Balbir Pasha visits a red light district under the influence of alcohol and forgets using a condom, he could be at risk. Again, in the 'porter' ad, a dockhand pops another the same question. The second chap doesn't think it's a possibility - because Balbir Pasha visits a 'regular'. That's when the first guy informs that just because Pasha's seeing a regular doesn't mean the woman is limiting herself to Pasha. The third commercial addresses the 'looks healthy' argument. In all three ads, the revelations have a suitable effect on the errant protagonists.

Idea apart, one of the best things about the campaign is its look and feel. The films (directed by Chax of POV) capture the sweat-and-grime very well, while the dialogues (typical Mumbai lingo, for the Mumbai phase) are just right. "We're using our audience's language and ambience so they know this is about them," says Nair. "It's a very sensitive issue as we're talking about things that give them pleasure. I'm happy we seem to have got it right." Jayaram, for her part, says that one of the objectives was to see the campaign didn't have "an AIDS ad feel". She adds that the teaser campaign has gone down well, with research showing a 50 per cent recall for outdoor and radio.

A lot of credit for that should go to the name 'Balbir Pasha'. It sticks. © 2002 agencyfaqs!

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