Unafraid and unapologetic – PSI India created Balbir Pasha when sex was a taboo, AIDS was a myth, and the population ignorant!
The nine-year-old me was baffled at the sight of ‘Balbir Pasha ko Aids Hoga kya’ slogans plastered everywhere around the city. Who was Balbir Paasha and what was AIDS? It was the early 2000s, sex was still represented with intertwined flowers and condoms were unheard of; for a 9-year-old to be explained what AIDS was, was almost bizarre. And yet, someone dared to do it.
It was the Population Services International, India and Lowe Lintas who for Operation Lighthouse, an HIV/AIDS prevention programme crafted Balbir Pasha, an anti-hero, like whom no one wished to end up.
This week’s #BrandSaga retraces the journey of a campaign that created a brand connect so strong, that AIDS prevention is till date associated with PSI India.
In early 2000s, nearly 0.274 million AIDS cases were detected among the Indian adult population. This could be majorly attributed to ignorance around the disease, discomfort and stigma surrounded by sex, and general lack of competence for sexual health/habits.
Having identified the target audience between 18-40 age group from SEC C, D and E1in the metro cities, who have a tendency of believing that they can’t ever contract AIDS, Lowe Lintas began the brainstorming process. The idea was to deliver the message without being preachy.
“We had around 100 interpersonal communicators in the field doing condom AIDS awareness activities and condom distribution,” said Sanjay R Chaganti. program director, PSI in a report to The Economic Times. “The problem was that they lacked credibility. People knew about AIDS, but they didn’t think they could get it,”
To declutter myths and excuses, under the leadership of R. Balki, Balbir Pasha was born – a man who would become an example of bad sexual choices, thus establishing how he can contract AIDS, as opposed to preaching the audience in terms of how they could contract the disease.
During the initial phase of conceptualizing the campaign, KV Shridhar a.k.a Pops who was closely associated with the campaign looks back and exclaims thinking, “Nothing can be done with these truckers”. Because all the research and probing was not leading anywhere.
Ad veteran Priti Nair who also worked on Balbir Pasha mirrors the thought stating a lot had already been done for AIDS, the team had done a lot of research. But everybody had their own reason for thinking that they will never contract AIDS.
She adds, “Nobody was willing to wear condoms. Our team involving Tushar Kadam, Nikhil Rao, and Hitesh Tiwari were debating how we can crack this”.
With internet still going through the dotcom bubble phase, marketing was restricted to print & television, making teaser campaigns an expensive affair. PSI India decided to take the teaser route against all odds, pasting the question – Balbir Pasha ko AIDS Hoga kya all over Mumbai. These posters were specifically focused in red light areas, B & C grade theaters, petrol pumps and any other areas that truck drivers frequent.
Now remember, the audience had no idea about who Balbir Pasha was, why was the name of a tabooed disease spoken so loudly, and who was behind it. Curiosity was thick in the air. OOH, radio, and television – no medium was left untouched.
The Bad Example
The dawn of December 01, 2002, the revelation of who Balbir Pasha was finally made! Video commercials sporting typical Bambaiyya language, featuring the TG in various situations, discussing if Balbir Pasha had AIDS. Not to forget, the name Balbir Pasha, struck with the TG immediately.
The videos discussed issues such as unprotected sex under alcohol influence, women sex workers dealing with multiple partners – the idea was to tackle excuses consumers used to avoid taking AIDS seriously.
One would now recognize Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the Balbir Pasha ads (took me a while too; see it again).
The alter ego or anti-hero Balbir Pasha reflected the TG’s habits and sentiments of – AIDS can never touch them. The biggest challenge was that it was such a personal area that the campaign was going to interfere in, that the communication had to be impactful enough to trigger a behavioral change, Nair told Social Samosa while narrating the Balbir Pasha story.
The biggest shift while conceptualizing the campaign was not moralizing it. “We did not tell the audience what not to do; it was a mere acknowledgment of the behavior”, Priti shares. “Because so far all the communication was don’t do this/that, and nobody was listening because that’s too personal for anyone to tell you.”
Nair further shares that Balbir Pasha was a result of a multi-agency pitch. It was one of the rare campaigns submitted in a pitch that was materialized. This was special for in those days pitches were mainly restricted to gauging an agency’s work and a pitch campaign was almost never executed.
The campaign was translated by Pops for the southern markets such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where Balbir pasha became Pulli Raja.
He adds, “It is almost like an abuse even today, if anyone does anything wrong people will call him Pulli Raja. It has become a part of the colloquial language”.
An interesting thing about the Balbir Pasha campaign was that it was done pro-bono by the agency.
“I never imagined a campaign like this could make such an impact in such a cluttered media environment like Mumbai,” Chaganti had exclaimed. Balbir Pasha became the talk of the town. From parody Amul hoardings to B grade movies being named after him – Balbir Pasha was everywhere.
And if we stick to the anecdote, ‘Any publicity is good publicity’, the campaign received its share of backlash too. Blackening the hoardings, slogans by NGOs, and the usual drama; of course there was no trolling and IT cells back then.
In terms of hard results, there was increases risk perception amongst those exposed to the campaign, an increased tendency to discuss HIV/AIDS, and increase in number of people accessing HIV/AIDS prevention products and services.
Remarking the success of the campaign Pops tells Social Samosa, “It has not only changed the behavior of people who look at Balbir Pasha, but it has also eradicated Balbir Pasha from inside every individual”.
It created a reform around the red light areas, the sex workers changed, truck drivers changed. This change brought by the campaign helped contain AIDS, otherwise, AIDS would have been a bigger pandemic in India.
Balbir Pasha had arrived and was here to stay!
Population Control Campaigns
The next few years PSI India dedicated to population control. Given the demographics of the TG, most of these ads portrayed women as housewives dedicated to raising a family. Each of the video had a different message – protection, family planning, and more.
In the following years, PSI India launched Masti Condoms in the Northern markets. The idea was to reach out to the masses in smaller towns and associate sex with more progressive overtones.
A decade after its launch, Masti Condoms released three bold commercials, at a time when the Indian Government was considering banning condom commercials on national television.
“It is worthy to note that two-thirds of India’s population is constituted by Generation Y and Generation Z. With a young population set, there is a large need for contraception education and contraception use,” Shankar Narayanan, Managing Director, PSI IPL, told Brand Equity in a 2017 report.
To break the clutter amidst the condom ads category, Leo Burnett India crafter the Masti Man – an all-rounder who aces his work life, is aware of his responsibilities, treats his partner as an equal, and treats sex as a part of his life and not his entire life. He was a Jack of all, just like the Man of the Match.
Battling taboos around sex and protection in the early 90s, to now dealing with conservative guidelines from Ministry of Broadcast & Information, and breaking stigmas around sex – PSI India has been bold in its approach from day one. Unafraid and unapologetic – PSI India’s marketing strategy stands the test of time.