Ringing in success: creative AIDS communications

Executive Director, BBC Media Action USA

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Jasoos Vijay, the HIV-positive, crime-fighting hero, was a huge hit on Indian TV.

It's been six years since I sat in the shade of a tree in a remote village in Rajasthan, India, chatting to a fan of our work. I asked the man of the house if he watched Jasoos Vijay, our TV drama series featuring an HIV-positive detective.

He jumped up from his stool, disappeared into his hut, and returned holding a deep tin box, the kind used to store foodstuffs to protect its contents from the desert heat. He smiled as he pried open the lid and allowed me to peep inside.

The box contained a small TV, which he said he would connect to a power source on Sunday nights to watch Jasoos Vijay (Detective Vijay). Despite an irregular supply of electricity in his village, this man was one of nearly 70 million people from across the country who tuned in to watch the fast-paced adventures of the detective.

While attending the International AIDS Conference 2012 in Washington DC, I reflected on how far we have come from the early days of AIDS communications. When BBC Media Action started working on HIV awareness in India in 2001, HIV was a nascent but growing concern.

Sexually active men were the key audience in our efforts to communicate basic facts about the routes of transmission and the means of prevention. We knew that men like adventure and car chases, and so the smart and street-wise Jasoos Vijay was born.

Jasoos Vijay was a weekly half-hour television drama that provided accurate information about HIV to viewers through entertaining storylines. First broadcast in 2002, it became a family favourite over the next four years, often featuring in the top ten most watched TV shows in the country and winning several television awards. Once it was revealed that the hero Vijay was HIV positive, and importantly, that access to testing and treatment in India was becoming a reality, we could address more complex issues related HIV diagnosis, treatment and on-going care.

By 2007, it was clear that HIV was considered a "concentrated epidemic" in India, meaning that the prevalence of HIV was concentrated among high-risk groups such as sex workers, injecting drug users and men who have sex with men. Therefore, the focus of our AIDS communication changed from awareness raising among the general population to more catered communications addressing the information needs of high risk groups.

We needed to tackle taboos surrounding condoms. Research showed that a major barrier to condom use was embarrassment in purchasing them and fear of negative judgement when seen to be a condom user. We produced a multimedia interactive advertising campaign on TV, radio, outdoor and mobile with the goal to 'normalise' condoms and associate them with smart and responsible behaviour. If we make condoms more socially acceptable, then men, especially those in the high-risk groups, will have a more supportive environment to use them.

There had been a lot of advertisements on HIV prevention in India so it was essential that we produce a campaign that would get people talking and would be memorable. At the time, India was the world's fastest-growing mobile telephone market, with 300 million users and 10 million new subscribers a month. In a country where mobile ringtones are very popular, we capitalised on this trend, creating the first ever mobile ringtone with a health message – a condom themed ringtone!

Those who wanted to show support for condoms, or those who just liked the ringtone, could download it on their phones. When the phone rang, people would react – we hoped – and taboo-breaking conversations would ensue. The aim was that embarrassment about the word would gradually reduce and condoms would become 'normal' health products.

We received nearly 700,000 requests to download the ringtone and the government of India adopted the campaign and used it in its own HIV-prevention efforts. It made the front page of the Times of India, CNN listed it as the most novel condom campaign in the world and the ringtone topped a list of must-have ringtones in India. And, most importantly, condom purchases increased.

Mass media, whether it is through thrilling TV dramas, public service advertisements, or content on mobile phones, can be excellent platforms to deliver life-saving information and shape positive social norms. The popularity and effectiveness of Jasoos Vijay and the condom ringtone, among other initiatives in BBC Media Action's ten years of HIV and AIDS communication, reflects that’s it is possible to fulfil the BBC’s mission to inform, educate AND entertain.


Related links

 BBC Media Action: Condom is just another word 

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