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World Service Trust Condom Ringtone

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Yvonne MacPherson | 12:11 UK time, Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The BBC World Service Trust uses the creative power of the media to achieve development goals. We use a variety of approaches including television and radio drama and advertisements to raise awareness and promote change in behaviour on health, governance, human rights, the environment and other development issues.

We were recently given a tough task: to make condoms more acceptable, and free from negative judgment, in a country that doesn't really acknowledge that sex happens, never mind sex that should be protected.

We came up with a wacky idea to get people talking about condoms. We recorded a condom-themed ringtone. Listen to the mp3 here.

This is, we think, the first time that a mobile ringtone has been used to communicate a social or public health message. With one in four people in India having a mobile phone, and ringtones being, for some, statements of personal style, it's a new way to reach people.

We also decided to use a ringtone because, when the phone rings, the tune - or, in our case, the word "condom" - is put out in public. This stimulates conversation, which is desirable as - according to research - those who talk about sex and condoms are more likely to have healthy behaviours, such as using condoms consistently.

We wanted to create a conversation piece that would get people talking and would ultimately help to break down the taboo about condoms. We want to portray the condom user as a smart and responsible person. Having the ringtone on your phone shows that you understand this.

condomcondom.pngSetting up a true tone ringtone

There are three ways of setting up a true tone ringtone download service:
• IVR: Interactive voice response is a voice service where the mobile user dials a code, hears the ringtone and has the option of selecting the option to download the ringtone
• SMS: the mobile user sends a code word (e.g. "CONDOM") to a shortcode (in our case it was a seven-digit numerical code) and gets a WAP push in reply, from where the user has the option to download the ringtone, at which time download costs apply
• online: the MP3 file posted on an internet site allows the user to save it on his/her computer and then transfer it to his/her mobile telephone.
In addition to these, the ringtone can be shared via bluetooth and emailing MP3 files.

As cost was a priority, both for minimising our costs and the cost to the mobile user, we selected the SMS and online options. We tried to negotiate the SMS download for free because this was a non-profit public awareness campaign, but with India having many telecoms companies and operators, this was an impossible task, which meant that a free download from a website was just as important as the SMS download.

The dedicated website is at www.condomcondom.org and also has condom-themed games and details about the campaign.

Through the SMS option we were able to capture most GPRS and all CDMA providers in the country. The arrangement with our service provider is that the download costs nothing to BBC World Service Trust, but costs 3 Indian Rupees (INR80 = 1GBP) for the request SMS and between INR10-20 for download from WAP push.

A shortcoming of this approach is that only people with true tone-enabled mobile phones can download the ringtone. As we've witnessed, people don't even know what their phones enable, as evinced by the vast numbers of people who have requested the download but have not been successful because their phones do not support the true tone ringtone.

We've debated whether to produce a polyphonic version, but decided it defeats the purpose of the getting the word "condom" out.

The ringtone is being promoted in TV and radio adverts. You can see the TV ad on the Trust's website or below:

Much to my excitement, the idea to use mobile telephone ringtones to influence views about condoms has not only gripped India, it has now become an international news story.

The campaign started just a month ago and here are a few topline results:

  • We've had over 270,000 requests for downloading the ringtone in India through our SMS shortcode. This does not include the number of people who have obtained the ringtone via Bluetooth and our website.
  • The campaign website condomcondom.org has received over 2m hits. We get over 65,000 hits a day.
  • We've collected hundreds of news stories from all over the world that have covered the campaign. It's appeared on the front page of the Times Of India as well as international media. International sources covering it range from NPR and The Economist to the very random - I was recently interviewed by a radio station in Bogota Colombia!
  • The Indian government has adopted our campaign and is airing our TV and radio adverts at its own expense as part of its National AIDS Control effort.

We are tracking all of the media and audience reaction to the campaign, specifically to assess the impact this has had on people's attitudes towards condoms.

I'll leave this post with an amusing (and completely true) anecdote. When we were recording the ringtone in a Mumbai studio, the shape of the audio wave file on the computer screen was unbelievable, uncanny. Have a look:


With this "condom normalisation" project, we've added a new device to our tool kit - the mobile ringtone!

Your comments and questions are very welcome.

Yvonne MacPherson is Country Director, BBC World Service Trust, India.



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