The bedrock of the campaign was the principle that people can learn by observing the behaviour of others. As part of the campaign, a fictional character (or "alter ego") named Balbir Pasha was created to communicate risk awareness, serve as a behavioural model, and dispel myths surrounding HIV/AIDS. The idea was to increase perception of HIV/AIDS risk from unprotected sex with non-regular partners by personalising the message and creating empathy through identifiable real-life situations. Viewers encountered people speculating on Balbir's future: in one scene from a television commercial, two workers ask, "Will Balbir Pasha Get AIDS?" and raise the subject of condom use with regular partners. Ads featured Balbir experiencing places and situations that were familiar to the group being addressed.
Following pre-campaign testing of the acceptability and comprehension of the messages' tone and content, campaign materials were designed that featured the following 3 themes:
- The Alcohol Connection - "I often use condoms, but when I get drunk, I sometimes forget to use them." (December 1 - December 20 2002)
- Regular Partner Issue - "I only have sex with one person (sex worker or casual partner) and hence I am safe." (December 21 2002 - January 10 2003)
- Asymptomatic Carrier Issue - "If a person looks healthy he/she must be safe from HIV/AIDS" (January 11 - January 31 2003)
Due to the large size of the high-risk group the campaign sought to reach, mass media - especially billboard advertising concentrated in specific geographic areas - was deemed the most efficient tool for reaching these people. Posters and billboards were erected at bus stops, train stations, cinema halls, and throughout the red light district. Radio and TV commercials and print ads were also part of the campaign.
About 4 million Indians are infected with HIV, second only to South Africa, and an estimated 80% are the result of heterosexual transmission. The epidemic is centred in Mumbai, a city of over 14 million people. Research exposed misconceptions surrounding HIV transmission and risk assessment. One in every three men who visited a commercial sex worker (CSW) was unaware that a healthy-looking individual could carry HIV. Men believed that while CSWs were at high-risk for contracting HIV, the men who patronised them were not. Research also found a strong link between high-risk behaviour and alcohol consumption.
Some critics called the campaign sexist because it implied that HIV was spread primarily from women to men. Organisers reply that this was because the campaign sought to address men who frequented CSWs.
In an article entitled "Hats off to the Balbir Pasha Campaign," the national newspaper Indian Express quoted theatre and advertising personality Rahul Da Cuhna as saying, "I think this is one of the few AIDS campaigns that has really been successful since it has talked to a whole strata of people, without sounding alien."
The campaign is part of PSI India's Operation Lighthouse, an HIV/AIDS prevention project in 12 major port communities of India funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through PSI's AIDSMark project.
Funded by USAID.
USAID HIV/AIDS E-Newsletter--October 20, 2003; and "Balbir Pasha: HIV/AIDS Campaign is the Talk of Mumbai" [PDF].