Vidya Balan in an advertisement for Swach Bharat.
Recently, I switched on FM Gold for some music and news and heard a public interest advertisement on the need to ensure safety and respect for teachers. A few days earlier, a teacher in an outer Delhi school had been killed by knife-wielding students. In the ad, Delhi’s Education Minister, Manish Sisodia, called upon citizens and particularly parents to ensure that teachers do not feel demoralized and insecure.
My first reaction was ‘’how thoughtful’. It helped that Sisodia happens to have a nice, sincere voice. After a while, though, my initial appreciation turned to irritation when the longish ad was repeated, word for word, time and again. By the time I had heard it four times in two hours, I began to wonder if it could actually be counter-productive.
The next day this ad was taken off but another public interest ad by Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain kept being repeated with even greater frequency. In this case the rationale for repetition was probably stronger as the minister was stating some basic facts about dengue and chikungunya. Even so, much of what he said was already well known by this time and less frequent repeats would have helped to reduce costs without reducing the reach.
Since radio programmes are witnessing a boom in repeat public interest ads, a review of costs and impact would be useful. Short ads in a nice jingle form, quickly repeated, work well. Recently, during Mental Health Week, several short ads on FM Gold on various aspects of mental health attracted a lot of attention and proved very informative.
But when it comes to the endless repeat of long, clunky, wordy ads, radio programmers should worry about the adverse effect on the patience of their listeners.
In fact the Delhi government has recently shown significant improvement in its more recent public interest ad campaign for improving the reading skills of schoolchildren. This ad campaign comprises a number of different ads, one featuring Sisodia, another featuring an ordinary student of a government school, and yet another one featuring a school teacher – it attracts listeners because of its variety, and students and teachers identify more closely with it.
Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari is another high-profile political leader who is very frequently present in public interest radio advertisements. As some of them are about road safety, their repetition can be justified to some extent, but only to some.
Another point is that most public interest advertising involving ministers talking about what people need to do and are silent about how governments need to fulfill their responsibilities - particularly relevant in the context of road safety and the outbreak of diseases.
Some public ads that are repeated frequently feature celebrities such as the one where actress Vidya Balan talks about the construction of toilets. In this, Balan says that she is often admired for the assertive roles she has played but she feels instead that it is women who demand toilets who show real courage.
Such a routine line cannot bear too much repetition before losing its impact. A series of Balan ads on the topic, with a slightly different message or at least different examples and presentation, would have attracted more listener interest.
In the print media, too there appears to be significant scope for reducing costs and improving impact. Often it appears that full page ads have been filled up very hurriedly with photographs of ministers and some poorly articulated messages and facts presented unattractively. Not only is there scope for more creativity but also for better targeting.
For example, a full page ad published in the Economic Times on September 15 on the outbreak of diseases in Delhi asks people not to panic, lists 24 government hospitals and – to fill the space - gives a big picture of a mosquito and an even bigger one of the state health minister. There is hardly anything in the ad that readers don’t already know, including the list of government hospitals which this paper’s readers are, in any case, unlikely to visit.
Compare this with a less than a half page ad on the same subject which the same government published in the Hindustan (Hindi) on October 5 which uses the more limited space in a more intelligent way to provide more meaningful information more appropriately targeted for the readers of this newspaper.
Public interest advertisements are very important and we need more of them. But experience shows that there is a need to be more thoughtful about how to get important messages across to the public effectively without incurring unnecessary costs.