Snehi: Serving a rude shock

By , agencyfaqs! | In | January 30, 2003
The public service ad for Delhi-based NGO, Snehi, works because it successfully delivers on shock value, without becoming heavy-handed

As a rule, public service advertising thrives on shock. Or, at least, the element of surprise sprung on unsuspecting audiences. However, it is due to this unwritten rule that so many public service campaigns fall miserably flat. Because of this perceived need to shock (or surprise), public service ads often become quite heavy-handed, leaving audiences untouched, unaffected and, hence, unchanged.

Heavy-handedness isn't the only reason why shock doesn't always find its mark in public service advertising. The buildup to the shock is also a culprit, at times. Too much revealed too early is a dead giveaway, and it's hard impacting audiences when their defenses are up.

Shock can, however, work marvelously. The trick lies in softening the audience, lulling them… 'unpreparing' them for the shock that lurks ahead. This is where the television commercial (created by Publicis Ambience) for Snehi, a Delhi-based NGO, scores brilliantly. Red herrings, a false sense of security… followed by a nasty dose of reality that blows up in your face.

The film opens on an elderly gentleman seated on a verandah, reading the papers. A young girl of maybe 10 or 12 is singing 'Ol' MacDonald…' as she plays with a soft toy. Suddenly, she breaks into a fit of coughing. The man looks at her, picks up a glass of water from a nearby table and walks over to her side and hands her the glass. He then opens a bottle of medicines, shakes out a tablet and gives it to her. She gulps the tablet down. Then, the man gently leads the girl into the house…

And the camera focuses on the bottle of medicines. The label on the bottle clearly reads: Birth Control Pills.

'Unfortunately, 56 per cent of child abuse crimes in India are committed by family members,' the super states chillingly, followed by an appeal to report child abuse cases to Snehi. For the record, Snehi operates in the sphere of child abuse and crimes against children.

A very unsettling ad, not one you'd enjoy watching over and over. That's why it's good - it's not purely 'showreel material'. It preys (very justifiably) upon parental insecurity by challenging every parent's fundamental sense of security. The wolfish elder in the family, the trusting-yet-vulnerable child, the exploitation of innocence… The reality is way too close for comfort.

But that's not why the ad works. Many parents are already aware of how close relations are perpetrators of child abuse. It's not the '56 per cent' figure either - that's just a statistic. The real reason the ad works is because it delivers on shock. The ad starts off somewhere and ends somewhere else. For instance, even if one guessed this to be a public service ad, one would think of children fighting AIDS or leukemia or some other terminal disease (the girl's cough, the medicine bottle and the tablet serve as perfect red herrings). Never child abuse. So when the contraceptive pills come into focus, the stomach turns as the penny drops.

The ad, interestingly, is the byproduct of a brainstorming session for 'soya chunks' brand, Nutrela. "The brief for Nutrela was to think about montages that showed the effects of a high-protein diet on kids," recalls B Raghu, associate creative director - copy, Publicis Ambience, who scripted the Snehi ad with Manish Bhatt, (associate creative director - art) and Prachi Rashmi (senior writer). "We were thinking of the effects of such a diet, and the mind simply went to a picture of a condom hidden under a young boy's pillow…" Protein diet and oversexed kid. Twisted mind, but what the heck - that's creativity. "The contrast between a kid and a condom was striking, but we couldn't use it that way for Nutrela, of course," Raghu admits.

But it set something off. "A kid associated with a contraceptive was a striking visual, and the more we thought about the visual, the clearer we saw the potential for an ad on child abuse," Bhatt takes up. Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding chipped in too. "We were watching the movie on a flight, and it must have been there in our subconscious," says Bhatt. "All these things acted together, and soon we created the script for this ad."

Once the script was finalized, friend and ad filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar (of Apocalypso) agreed to make the commercial for them. But Bhatt admits that the real challenge was in casting the elderly gentleman. "The model had to have a look that did not in any way suggest his loose morals," says Bhatt. "As far as the audience was concerned, he had to be totally neutral at the beginning of the film. His true colours had to be revealed only at the end. The ad would not work if the audience guessed the intentions behind his actions." Incidentally, the girl's face is in shadow throughout the ad. Intentionally. "This is a really touchy subject, and we didn't want the ad to affect the girl adversely," explains Raghu. It works on a symbolic level - the victim needs to be sheltered from public glare, but the perpetrator needs to be unmasked.

Once the film was made, the need for a client had to be met. Publicis Ambience began tapping existing NGOs, but there was one overriding factor: the NGO had to have a helpline. "It became clear that the commercial elicited responses, so we wanted an NGO that had a response device such as a helpline," says Raghu. Finally, it was Jagori, another Delhi-based NGO that also works in the area of child abuse, which put the agency through to Snehi. "We had worked with Jagori some three years ago for a print campaign, and when they saw the ad, they immediately recommended Snehi," Bhatt explains. Incidentally, Snehi is a helpline-lead NGO. "Snehi was very receptive. They were very happy because public awareness about child abuse is limited in India, and they felt thrilled that the advertising community was helping is the cause."

Where the ad really works is in its ending. The sight of the man leading the girl into the house is ominous in its subtlety. And the horrors that are to unfold are left to the viewer's imagination… © 2003 agencyfaqs!

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