Sucheta Dalal :A breakthrough in public service?
Sucheta Dalal

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A breakthrough in public service?   

April 2, 2010

Public service advertising in India is essentially a big sham. It’s almost always executed with one mission in mind: to grab yet another (worthless) advertising award. Until only a few years ago, fake, non-existent ‘clients’ used to be invented for a public service ad.

Jamadaars, cobblers, cooks, dhobis… they all became fair game! It’s only in the recent times that juries have taken a tough stand on fake ads. Still, if you glance through the December issues of low-cost dailies such as ‘The Free Press Journal’ and ‘The Afternoon Dispatch & Courier’, you’ll find they resemble guard books for the nation’s finest pieces of advertising. Needless to add, all scam ads get created at the last minute to add to the awards’ tally.
However, now and then comes along a public service ad that appears serious in its endeavour, and holds a degree of promise. Breakthrough Trust, an international human rights organisation, has released one such campaign in India. Themed ‘Bell Bajao’, the ads attempt to solve the problem of domestic violence. There are three commercials on air. In each one, when a neighbour hears conversations and sounds that indicate domestic violence, he/she rings the cad’s doorbell as an excuse to intervene. But instead of taking the offender to task (clearly not a good idea… can be hazardous to the bell-ringer’s health!); the neighbour makes an excuse to strike a conversation. In one commercial, an old man hands over a blank postcard. In another one, the fellow wants to know what the time is. In the third commercial, the neighbour enquires if the electricity is working in the offender’s house.
Quite obviously, these feeble attempts cannot stop the menace of domestic violence. This is like using Band Aid to heal a brain tumour. But what ‘Bell Bajao’ does is two things: One, to make the offender aware that the neighbour knows about his misdeeds, so he better be careful. This can often work. Many people fear being ostracised by neighbours. And two, the intervention can provide some breathing space to the victim, even save her life, although temporarily. The unsaid thing, of course, is that if the violence does not end, one always has the option to call the cops.
It’s a good idea. Any public menace that can be dealt with by civilians must always be encouraged. However, for now, three commercials are done. The true test of the campaign will come in the future. If they don’t go all the way, and use a sustained 360-degree carpet-bombing exercise in the media, then the entire venture becomes pointless. This idea must become a movement for it to hope to achieve some success.
And only when that happens, can we safely assume that this isn’t just another campaign created with Cannes or Goafest in mind.
— Anil Thakraney

-- Sucheta Dalal