Prathap Suthan
Guest Article

Government advertisements and dragon eggs… who will slay the monster?

Remember the Government’s ‘Do boond zindagi ke’ movement that helped India fight polio? Is a similar strong message missing in the COVID context?

After two months of being cut off from life as we knew it, we are now making our way back into a strange new world. Full of half-masked strangers, jumpy neighbours, nervous colleagues, and some seriously edgy people as Vir Das recently found out.

We are suddenly a nation full of cranky people afraid of everything that moves on two legs. Anyone could be a vector. From the car driver to the bank teller to the courier boy to the expat boss to the paanwalla to the captain of the Indian water polo team to even your secret lover.

Prathap Suthan
Prathap Suthan

Plus if the first-day aviation disaster is anything to take any comfort from, even the most hardcore optimist will slip down gloomsdale.

But no matter how complicated it looks, the Government will have to find effective ways to stop these dragon eggs from hatching further.

To be fair there wasn’t a ready-made manual on pandemics. One little microscopic vermin shattered the earth’s collective nuclear bravado to shards. Each holding a mirror to the world of its misguided priorities.

Now that the coop has been opened, we are but dithering chicken at the threshold of a dystopian landscape.

Our COVID numbers are spiking daily, Mumbai is fast hurtling towards insanity, and with our economy whimpering ever louder, this isn’t exactly the most rocking avatar of self-reliant India.

So now that we are caught between a tsunami and a packed beach, what kind of advertising should the Government take on? What more should they let the people know?

There’s been an overdose of fear and scare. So cranking up that dosage isn’t going to work.

Despite our best efforts, Indian jugaad found plenty of loopholes to slip through the lockdown. And I do not doubt that this breeding frenzy is the consequence of our irresponsible behaviour. Nothing else. This alone has allowed the script of the Alien movie to get frighteningly real with thousands out there.

It’s not that the Centre or the States have been media-shy or quiet. They have been peppering our lives since this invasion began. Information being all we had and have in our stockpile to outsmart the virus.

But until we reach that one glorious moment when we have a cure for this infection, or we have a safe and tested vaccine, the one way to stay protected is to do everything to protect ourselves. This to me should be the underpinning of all that we advertise.

We are the only cure and vaccine as of now. We alone are the only armour we have against this monster. Break the rules and your lungs are cooked. This truth has to be tattooed without mercy.

If you go in for a naked roll down a tropical hillside, you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that you’ll have leeches sticking out of your sides.

The Government needs to deliver clear and lucid information without layering. We have gained from similar advertising. Remember 'Do Boond Zindagi Ke' that worked to kick out polio, or even some of the HIV awareness campaigns. But those worked across time and years.

We don’t have that luxury. This is an emergency. We got to catch a fire mid-blaze, without getting burned. And for that, I’d like the Government to fire every advertising gun they have.

There has to be a variety of messaging that needs to come through. Both macro and micro. And this needs to be sent out at different levels, using cold rationale and mushy emotion. Whips and roses.

On the macro level, we need to still reinforce the requirements of physical distancing, wearing of masks, and the regularity of washing hands.

Let’s employ honest severity to condone our abject lack of disobedience. Which gets people to walk around minus masks, cluster up at shops, and forget the 6 feet mantra of safety.

Let’s introduce heavy fines for flouting these rules. At some level, this works.

Let’s talk about how we are running out of hospital beds. And how hospitals are straining, and how there just may not be space anymore.

Let’s talk about how we don’t have enough doctors and nurses to help people, and why we need to delay the rabid rise of cases.

Let’s share testimonials and pleas of people who are in the frontline, and appeal to the emotional side of people.

Let’s showcase actual situations where hospitals can't cope anymore.

Let’s also share stories of people who have survived. Let’s share hope and light. Let’s show people who are infected - but mildly, which is anyway the case with most people. And let’s show that the actual truth is not as grotesque as the world has made it out to be.

Let’s tell people how life is after COVID. And why we survivors shouldn’t be treated as untouchables. I know some fights will take place on this, and we need to quickly fix this stigma and defuse the bombs that are ticking.

Let’s show people who have it, who live, laugh, call friends, watch movies, and how they handle the full run of the infection. There are far too many shadows living among us.

On a micro level, let’s allay the unspoken fears that people have. Fattened as we have been by WhatsApp and its unknown audio clips loaded with tragic stories.

Currently, people don’t know what happens once they are taken away. Never to be seen again. Where do they go? Do they come back at all?

Let’s tell people that they can still be in touch with their loved ones. Or that the health authorities will be in constant touch. And in the rare case things turn worse, they need to know that won’t vanish into the night. Or if they turn positive, it won’t be the last time they see their homes and families.

These are dreadful fears. Personal fears. Very deep ripples that are ravaging most people – especially older people or people who aren’t physically young. Along with everything that we must share with our billion-plus people, we need to address these demons as well.

The sooner the Government starts touching these issues and those that I may have missed, at least we know that we won’t be losing to ignorance. They need to be told quickly, efficiently, and transparently. Our people need to know.

This without waiting for celebs to find time and benevolence. I honestly think we should keep away from them. Talking from their perches and spouting platitudes is a waste of good horsepower. They come through as people detached from reality, showing false concern, and sharing fake smiles. How much ever sincere they are.

People will trash hollow meaningless fluff. But they will respond to genuine actions.

If the Government truly wants a celeb to drive this, we have the PM himself who can pull anything off.

There’s no one else people will trust more at this moment. He is the one man who can truly rain hellfire on dragon spawn.

(The author is managing partner, chief creative officer at Bang in the Middle.)