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Promoting HIV/AIDS education through targeted mass media communications, Maharashtra
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Subject Area="Behavioural Change Communication." Objective="HIV/AIDS awareness."
Details for Reform Option "Promoting HIV/AIDS education through targeted mass media communications, Maharashtra"

Background: A review of existing research revealed high-risk attitudes and behaviour prevail among men in the lower socio-economic groups in Mumbai, which has the largest brothel-based Commercial Sex Workers (CSWs) area (‘red light district’) in India. Most HIV/ AIDS preventions in the city had focused on educating and empowering the CSWs in the red light district with varying degrees of success. However, it was recognised that work needed to be done in motivating their clients to practice safe sex across the city in a sustained and effective manner. Action: Population Services International (PSI) carried out an aggressive communication campaign using the principle that people can learn by observing the behaviour of others. They (with the help of advertising agency Lowe) created an ‘alter-ego’ in the form of a fictional character named ‘Balbir Pasha’. Through a mixture of strategically-placed outdoor communications (billboards, posters on trains and buses), hard-hitting television and radio messages and comprehensive newspaper exposure, this character was portrayed in various intriguing scenarios, serving as a behavioural model for consumers of Mumbai mass media to relate to, learn from and empathise with. By gradually unravelling each of the ‘Balbir Pasha’ scenarios in an approachable and familiar manner, the campaign succeeded in building intrigue, personalising HIV risk and bringing the topic of HIV/ AIDS ‘out of the closet’ in a unique, hard-hitting manner. The campaign included promoting an HIV/ AIDS helpline, voluntary counselling and HIV testing services as well as on-the-ground interpersonal communications. Key activities: The campaign devised a ‘positive preventive message’ rather than using scare tactics and concentrated on known attitudes and false beliefs eg that ‘healthy’ looking people could not be carriers of the HIV virus. It released each stage of the ‘story’ over a period of four months, thereby increasing the intrigue and ‘gossip value’, similar to a television soap opera. The campaign began with a ‘teaser’ and then used key insights about a particular target group in the hopes of prompting members to question their own behaviour. The final stage of the campaign asked them to contact an HIV/AIDS helpline for more advice. Results: An independent research agency TNS MODE evaluated the impact of the campaign by conducting studies at the beginning and the end. Though faced with some criticism for its frankness, impact studies and other data demonstrated that the campaign achieved phenomenal reach and that those exposed to its messages exhibited marked knowledge acquisition, attitude change, and understanding of risk and behaviour change with regard to HIV / AIDS.

Cost Approximately INR 2.5 Crore (after securing a 40% discount because the campaign spread social awareness). Of this amount, about INR 1 Crore (€178,325) was spent on hoardings. The balance was spent on TV, radio and press campaigns. For the helpline, major start- up expenditures (including software, equipment, recruitment, training) came to an estimated INR 25 lakh . Monthly operational costs (call centre costs, staff pay etc) are approximately INR one lakh (€1,783) (not including supporting communications campaigns or monitory and evaluation studies). Programmes replicating the helpline would have substantially lower start-up costs as they would not include development and ownership costs of the software programme. The cost for starting up a new helpline in India is an estimated INR 13 to 15 lakh (€23,179-26,745).
Place Mumbai, November 2002 – February 2003.
Time Frame Two to three months.

Personalised: By developing a character that the target consumer could relate to, the campaign was able to personalise HIV risk, which resulted in attitudinal shifts among those exposed to the messages. Familiarity: Much of the reason the campaign’s main messages made such an impact is attributable to the intrigue that was built up by the preceding teaser campaign. Familiarity with the character of Balbir Pasha gave the target consumer the opportunity to form a relationship with this character before the main precautionary HIV/ AIDS campaign was introduced. Wide-reaching: The effective use of a variety of communication media, eg. train posters, billboards, television, etc. was especially relevant to achieving the high visibility of the campaign’s messages.


Open to criticism: Can attract criticism for its frank approach towards sexuality. The campaign was also considered to be ‘anti-women’ by some as it depicted that the male character could be at risk of getting AIDS by having unprotected sex with a woman, thereby implying that HIV is passed on from women to men. Some women by the name of Manjula (the female character) took personal offence and some women’s groups argued that as the name Manjula is a Hindu name, the campaign targeted this specific religious group. PSI had to channel its efforts and resources towards defending its campaigns and in fact agreed to end its theme-based campaign 4 days earlier than planned.


Detailed research into lifestyle, attitudes and beliefs of target audience. Campaign tailored to those attitudes and beliefs. Helpline.

Who needs to be consulted

State govt (particularly health and AIDS cells); NGOs working in HIV/AIDS



Calls to the PSI helpline have been increasing post ‘Balbir Pasha’ in Mumbai and mass media communication campaigns have continued to promote it. As of March 2004, the helpline was still receiving on average 2000 calls per month.

Chances of Replication

Replicable although the campaign must be tailored to account for regional and cultural differences. It has been successfully replicated in the cities of Vizag, Chennai and Kolkata. Regional adaptation of Balbir Pasha was done in the south to become the ‘Puli Raja’ campaign.


The project was innovative, accepted by the community and provided ‘value for money’. However, it may be noted that the campaign is being run in parallel to the existing health system interventions (government) and, given the criticisms faced during the Mumbai campaign, it is necessary that key stakeholders in a city be taken into confidence prior to introducing the campaign, in order to build up an ‘ally base’ that can help protect the full execution of the campaign messages.


Submitted By

Clare Kitchen, Research Consultant, ECTA, New Delhi. September 2004.

Status Active
Reference Files
Balbir Case Study_FULL VERSION .pdf
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