I will talk about one of the most satisfying works I have ever done. It also happens to be one of my most meaningful campaigns. It was the campaign I did on Pulse Polio, way back in 2002, with Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign takes on greater import when I see that this year there have been no cases of polio reported. Although there are many people behind the eradication drive, it is satisfying to know that one of my campaigns played a role in it as well, especially at a time when the number of polio cases were on the rise. There are still some more years of zero cases needed for polio to be declared eradicated in India but this year, if nothing else, is a good start.
Brief to the agency
In the nineties, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, along with Unicef, was intent on devising an effective national polio eradication drive. The challenges were many from what I had understood during our discussions. Countries that were smaller or poorer than ours did not have a polio problem. In our country, polio was a big menace. What could I, as a communication professional, do to help them with their awareness drive is what they asked me.
Challenges faced while developing the campaign
But first I had to reckon with the hurdles. People did not believe in the efficacy of polio drops then; religious beliefs held many others back; above all, there was the ever-present denial—’this can never happen to me or my kids’. The job at hand was to get people out of their inertia and get them to visit the pulse polio booths.
If I were to tackle the misconceptions individually, it would have never led to a cohesive message or campaign. I had to simplify the message and not try and address each misbelief or misgiving separately. Through the campaign, I had to make the audience understand that it was idiotic of them to not give their child a chance at a polio-free, healthy life and leave it to fate.
The route chosen and why
That is when I thought up of the role Mr Bachchan could play in the campaign. We had all known him as the angry young man. But my campaign needed an angry old man. The reason? I was looking for a guardian-figure who could scold the masses watching the campaign for their inaction in visiting polio booths. When one does something wrong or foolish, his or her near and dear ones, especially older guardians, often get angry. But the anger is out of frustration at their loved ones making a mistake and not one born out of malice.
The guardians use the same anger to remonstrate and guide their young, near and dear ones back to a better path. There is nothing alienating about the anger. When I explained this to Mr Bachchan, he instantly saw the insight behind the angry old man story and agreed to come on board.
People loved it when the ad got released. It worked both ways. When Mr Bachchan said those remonstrations, people saw a distinguished, elderly man getting angry out of concern for them rather than the celebrity that was Amitabh Bachchan. He was not saying, “I am a celebrity and I endorse this cause.” He was saying, “How could you be so stupid to not go and give your child pulse polio drops?” People already respected and revered him; so the message was even more potent.
It also helped that the team did not soften the script in any way. We went the whole hog to fire the audience up. Ajay Gahlaut and I wrote the scripts ourselves. One of the ads began with Mr Bachchan reading the newspaper and disgusted, says aloud, “Laanat hai...” We did not go easy on the expletives and he was someone who could carry it off without offending anyone. We had crafted expressions such as “Dhikkaar hai!”, “Sharm aani chaahiye humein!” “Arre, polio jaati ya dharm ko pehchaan kar toh vaar nahin karta!” and “Kab tak karenge khilwaad apne bachhon ki zindagi se?” Since it was Mr Bachchan doing the coaxing and chiding, it worked wonderfully.
There were also versions where we highlighted the booth workers’ work and even thanked those who had visited a recent pulse polio drive, all enacted by Mr Bachchan. He had later told me that the campaign was one of his most satisfying ones. The role suited him very well and the audience identified with him in such a way that he became the ambassador for polio eradication for Unicef following the campaign.
Eventually, we went on to do more ads for the same team of clients on polio. Television was the most effective medium because we were speaking to millions of people.
Will it work today?
The campaign was based on a certain insight. The treatment needed to reflect timelessness. After all, if you do something wrong, your mother will still scold you. Elders still think it is their duty to get angry to right a wrong and use that anger as a way to get their near and dear ones to take positive action. In the ads Mr Bachchan was doing the same thing, playing the quintessential elderly guardian.