Song for the baby

Prasad Sangameshwaran | Updated on November 13, 2014





It’s certainly the most unique marketing campaign of our times. And its success depends on the target audience — the Parsis — making life-altering decisions

This Monday, an audience of 50-odd members in a South Mumbai gathering witnessed history in the making. Certainly for the first time in India and probably across the world, a mass media campaign was being unveiled to produce more babies. Yes, human babies.

The campaign in question has been conceived by Madison BMB for Jiyo Parsi, a scheme sponsored by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, tabled in 2013, and implemented through the Parzor Foundation, Bombay Parsi Punchayet and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). And its single-minded objective is to encourage Parsis to have more children.

While India grew…

Particularly in India, such communication is unheard of. Population advertisements in the country have always been about exercising control. The Hum Do Hamare Do campaign (encouraging Indian couples to have no more than two children) has captured public imagination since the 1960s. But as India marches towards becoming the most populated country in the world by 2028, the Parsis, a community that migrated from Iran centuries ago, are staring at extinction. According to data shared by the Parzor Foundation and TISS, the number of Parsis in India has come down from a peak of 1.11 lakh in 1951 to 69,601 in 2001 — declining on an average by about 12 per cent every decade. On an average during the last decade, for every 200 births, the community has been witnessing 800 deaths. In stark contrast, the population of the country trebled over a 60-year period from 318 million in 1941 to over a billion in 2001.

The irony was visible at the launch event of the campaign itself when Bollywood actress Perizaad Zorabian took the stage. Thanking the audience for coming out in such large numbers, she was quick to add, with trademark Parsi humour, that even an audience under 100 people spelt large numbers as far as the dwindling community was concerned.

As Prof Armaity S Desai, former chairperson at the University Grants Commission (UGC) and former director at TISS, Mumbai, points out, the population decline is a result of the coalescing of many factors. It’s the typical story that we hear in modern India. Most youngsters pursue education and careers and marry much later in life. The result is, the number of children is limited. Zorabian’s own case is going to be featured in the next stage of the Jiyo Parsi campaign. She married at 33, but had two children “back-to-back”.

Low fertility is cited as the number one reason for the population decline in several national and international research studies, with some of the other top reasons being late marriage, single child and preferring to stay single. Hence the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment offered under the Jiyo Parsi scheme will become the single thread of connectivity through the campaign.

Humour at work

Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison World, whose agency worked on the ad campaign for the Jiyo Parsi initiative, says, “Unlike other marketing campaigns, where the stakes involved are much lower, the action called for through this campaign can be life-altering.” While approaching the campaign, Madison BMB considered the cultural trait of Parsis who have always been known for their sense of humour and the ability to laugh at themselves. Hence, the underlying thought was, why should a campaign to save the community be of a serious or morbid nature?

Using that line of thought, the campaign uses sometimes cheeky, sometimes provocative, messaging to get young Parsis to think about the choices and responsibilities they have. While one ad about finding an inheritor for your grandparent’s automobiles is cheeky, the other showing a Parsi Colony being renamed as Hindu Colony is provocative. (In central Mumbai, Dadar Parsi Colony and Dadar Hindu Colony are in close proximity). Balsara defends the provocative nature of the ad by saying, “Good advertising has to offend someone to work. Otherwise it is just a handbill.”

Real people

Lara Balsara, executive director, Madison, says that to make the campaign look real, all people who were shot in the series of 17 print ads were not professional models but your friendly neighbourhood Parsi. The current campaign has been split into four phases. In the first stage the agency uses insights of the attitudes of Parsi boys and girls towards marriage and seeks to “hold up a mirror to their absurdity” stirring up debate in the community. The next phase will nudge Parsis to marry early. The third stage asks Parsis with a single child to add more children to their family. And the fourth phase will highlight the fact that if fertility is the issue, the IVF treatment, part or fully funded, would be provided.

To get members from the community involved, the Jiyo Parsi initiative even held competitions to design a logo for the initiative and so on. Behram Sidhwa, a young designer who finally won the contest from among the 15-odd entries, created a contemporary rendition of the Zoroastrian winged guardian angel, the Asho Farohar. “We hope the Jiyo Parsi initiative goes beyond just a campaign and becomes a movement,” says Katy Y Gandevia, programme co-ordinator, TISS Mumbai.

There are other cultural and social issues which rear their head, every time there is a discussion about Parsis and their declining numbers. First, Parsis excommunicate the children of girls who marry out of the community. Hence, the children from such marriages do not add to the numbers. The second is the priority of young Parsis. A newly married Parsi lady who is in her mid-twenties has this to say: “They can market all they want but having kids is expensive, especially in Mumbai. Couples living with parents in small houses mostly put off having kids simply because of space issues and quality of life.”

But do not expect a Parsi baby boom overnight. The expectations from this exercise are rather realistic. At the end of five years, the initiative would have ensured that around 200 children are born through IVF. Hopefully, many more Parsis are converted to the cause. Like one of the ads in the campaign urges, “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight.”

Published on November 13, 2014

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