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DD social service ads preach, but rarely convert

How does public interest advertising work on Doordarshan? Even more to the point, does it work at all?

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Tuesday 15 December 1992

-- AS STAR TV enters its second year of existence, there is less of its excellent public service advertisements to be seen. With paid consumer advertising increasing, the network no longer has to run messages on environmental protection and conservation as frequently.

This, of course, is a great pity, for Doordarshan could certainly have learnt a thing or two from the terse simplicity of the STAR TV ads. Unfortunately, Doordarshan is addicted to preaching -- on fuel conservation, on basic sanitation, on family planning, on preventing pollution and on much else. The Directorate of AudioVisual Publicity (DAVP) certainly does not seem to realise that brevity is the soul of wit.

Notable among STAR TV's public interest commercials is the one that shows toxic fumes withering a tree, whose bare branches then flip over to become a pair of lungs. The punchline is simple: "Pollution is poisoning the environment. And you." Another very effective ad simply has a toilet paper roll that runs out. "Use less paper," says the message. The public service ad seen most frequently on STAR TV now is an AIDS warning that does not beat about the bush: "AIDS is a killer disease. For safer sex use a condom."

Social marketing, public interest advertising -- call it what you will, some of the most effective development communication on television these days is through these spots. On Doordarshan they are veritable essays, but perhaps it could be argued that overcoming the literacy barrier requires much more reiteration of the message. Hence, on Doordarshan, an anti-pollution advertisement relates a long story of a little girl whose flowering plant wilts because of polluted air.

In a developing country, there will be increasing use of advertising as a tool of social marketing. This only means advertising methods and skills being used to achieve social goals. Because the state expects citizens to practice effective birth control, nurture the girl child and conserve fuel, it bombards viewers with appropriate messages.

But how effective are they? This, surely, depends on the level of expertise deployed. Doordarshan's most memorable public interest advertisements, most viewres would agree, are the national integration spots created for the Nehru centenary year by topnotch commercial advertising professionals. Remember Mile sur mera tumhara and the Torch of Freedom?

Though Doordarshan and DAVP between them find there is no systematic feedback on how effective these public interest TV commercials are, government ministries and departments are eagerly clambering on the TV bandwagon -- whether with an ad from the income tax people urging greater tax compliance or the commerce ministry pushing for value-added exports.

The big failure in public interest TV advertising seems to be the family planning messages while the successes have been those promoting oral rehydration and immunisation. The few impact studies that have been done indicate the family planning ads did not catch on partly because women found them too embarrassing to be watched along with elders and children and partly because the ads did not state clearly that the services advertised were available at all primary health centres.

In publicising AIDS, the greatest scourge of the 20th century, Doordarshan has been sadly wanting. So far, it has not had a sustained and hard-hitting ad campaign on combatting AIDS. But a recent ad on Zee TV, featuring Shabana Azmi, is most effective for its warmth and directness: It shows the actress embracing an AIDS-afflicted child and assuring that the disease does not spread through non-sexual contact. After listing the ways in which the HIV virus can spread, she says in Hindi while hugging the child, "This way you can only spread love."

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