Brand Saga: When Pulse Polio’s ‘Do Boond’ and Balbir Pasha’s AIDs awareness campaigns drove the nation to achieve the impossible

Pulse Polio Balbir Pasha

As the country reels under the massive impact of the pandemic and deals with uncertainty around vaccination, we take a brief look at how the Pulse Polio and Balbir Pasha campaigns helped India eradicate Polio and spread awareness around AIDS respectively in an effective manner like no other.

Today, India crosses the 18 million cases of COVID-19 infection and the death toll continues to skyrocket owing to the broken and strained health infrastructure and lack of supplies. The second wave of coronavirus has paralyzed the many lots and it’s the hope for the pandemic to get over that’s making people run for their lives. Caught amidst the miasma of failure and despair, the constant flow of appropriate communication from the authorities serves as the need of the hour. It happened two decades back when Pulse Polio ‘Do Boond Zindagi Ke’ flashed on our TV screens and India marched to eradicate polio. The ‘Balbir Pasha ko AIDs hai kya’ for spreading awareness around AIDs worked wonders. We take a stroll down memory lane having a look at the journey of the campaigns as today’s situation calls for something as impactful as the two mentioned above.

The Pulse Polio campaign

In 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Rotary Foundation joined hands to lead a public health effort to permanently eliminate all cases of poliomyelitis (polio) infection around the world. During that time, Polio was endemic in India. With Dr.Harsh Vardhan at the helm, the Government of Delhi piloted the first-ever large scale supplementary immunization campaign with Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) in 1994, which was followed by the launch of “Pulse Polio” immunization campaign with the iconic ‘Do Boond Zindagi Ki’ tagline, on 2nd October 1994.

1 million children up to 3 years of age were targeted under the activity with two doses of OPV being administered through an exclusive booth-based strategy. In 1995 the campaign was executed at a national level where the organization adopted a door-to-door strategy to spread mass awareness as a result of which 159 million kids were immunized till 1999.

The campaign was carried out on a large scale with effective use of mass mediums like newspapers and radio announcements. It also unleashed an immense spirit of volunteerism among individuals including teachers, leaders, medical practitioners, and even students who provided a helping hand to prevent the spread of communicable disease.

2002 witnessed a massive outbreak of Polio in India while the population in northern India, (from UP and Bihar which comprised more than 95 % of total cases) continued engaging mass resistance to immunization. The Ministry of Health and UNICEF had to take the matter into its own hands and roped in (then) Ogilvy and Mather to lead the mass communication for the Pulse Polio program.

The challenge lied in persuading rural mothers to walk up to the vaccination camps and help their kids become immune. As a means to combat the same and appeal to a wider population, Amitabh Bachchan was roped in as the brand ambassador for the Polio Eradication Campaign in 2002.

Ogilvy and ad director Santosh Sivan worked in tandem with the Ministry to create and produce multiple ads. According to the archives, radio was the primary medium of communication before 2003 and reached the remotest location. Later the focus was shifted to TV spots and films.

Celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan, AR Rahman, Jaya Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar were also roped in to join Big B in doing the greater good and spreading awareness about ‘Pulse Polio’ and ‘Do Boondh Zindagi Ke’ on a larger scale. Various emotional and action-oriented ads were broadcasted. Muslim and other minorities’ opinion leaders were made a part of the campaign.

Organizations like Rotary and various stars like Anil Kapoor from the world of Indian Cinema came together to let India know that we were this close to eradicating polio from our country.

Print ads and posters featuring famous celebrities with an appeal that read – ‘Now polio is going to end. We have to walk a little bit more’.

The ‘This Close’ posters created hope and motivated parents to pledge co-operation and support to the movement. A study published on communication and health, shares that as the campaign gradually moved towards success, various posters, ads, and pamphlets were launched which showed the happiness and joy of those parents who gave polio drops to their child. This institutionalized the campaign in minds of people, and parents accepted the arguments that polio drops are ‘two drops of life’.

India achieved a major milestone with the World Health Organization (WHO) striking it off the list of polio-endemic countries on 25 February 2012. The call-to-action with the tagline ‘Do boond zindagi ke’ helped in making India polio-free by February 2014 while being officially declared as a ‘Polio free’ nation.

Also Read: PSA campaigns that helped humanity through difficult times

Balbir Pasha – AIDS awareness drive

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 program crafted Balbir Pasha, an anti-hero, like whom no one wished to end up.

In early 2000s, nearly 0.274 million AIDS cases were detected among the Indian adult population. Having identified the target audience between 18-40 age group, 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 the internet still going through the dot-com 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 on red light areas, B & C grade theaters, petrol pumps, and any other areas that truck drivers frequent.

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.

An interesting thing about the Balbir Pasha campaign was that it was done pro-bono by the agency.

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 on the success of the campaign Pops (K.V.Sridhar)  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.

Administering the current crisis situation, how far is India in eradicating the venomous COVID-19 while the plan-in-action for the mass vaccination drives lacks amplification and perpetual PSAs.

In the meantime, you can read a detailed review about the Pulse polio and Balbir Pasha ad campaigns in the Brand Saga covered earlier.