Brand 'Bula-di' | Interventions
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Brand 'Bula-di'

The ‘Bula-di’ campaign in West Bengal opened up dialogue on HIV/AIDS and sexuality. But while its use of stereotypes was an effective communications strategy, it also glossed over some of the social problems that increase women’s vulnerability to HIV. Sreerupa Sengupta assesses the effectiveness of the campaign 

From end-2004 to mid-2007, she dispensed advice to people on issues pertaining to HIV and AIDS. She faced resistance, generated debates, but continued her work undaunted. After two-and-a-half years, the Bula-di campaign was phased out. This article attempts to review the long journey of Bula-di who had become an integral part of almost every Bengali household.

The theme of the World AIDS Campaign (WAC) in 2004 was Women, Girls, HIV and AIDS. Campaign groups in India joined in under the umbrella of the World AIDS Campaign. On December 1, 2004, the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society (WBSAPCS) commemorated World AIDS Day by launching a mass media campaign keeping in mind the broad theme of WAC.

It appointed Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) Kolkata, a private advertising agency, to devise a communication package for spreading awareness and educating people about the disease. O&M decided to use Bengal’s traditional and much loved nyakrar putul (rag doll) for its campaign. Thus the brand ambassador for the campaign took the shape of a fluffy doll called Bula-di who exuded charm and bonhomie. The campaign came to be popularly known as the ‘Bula-di’ campaign.

Bula-di epitomised the archetypal social worker of indeterminable age with a warm manner. She looked reliable, educated, well informed and spoke to her audience rather than preaching to them. Jayatsen Bhattacharya, creative head of O&M, said: “We needed an ambassador….whose acceptance as a friend, aunt or sister would be guaranteed across a whole cross-section of people, playing educator in an amiable and non-controversial manner.” (Ranjita Biswas, This ‘Didi’ Talks Sex, December 8, 2005,

The campaign

The campaign was conceptualised in phases and in each phase Bula-di became a little bolder, addressing issues of stigma, discrimination, human rights and the rights of women more openly as the campaign advanced.

The broad objectives of the mass media campaign were:

  • Educate women in monogamous, heterosexual relations and through them educate the men about the ground realities of HIV/AIDS
  • Change the low self-perception of risk of contracting the virus among the general population through dissemination of information
  • Get people to talk openly about HIV/AIDS and to empathise with people living with HIV/AIDS
  • Debunk myths related to the disease
  • Motivate people to access the toll free helpline (1097) and Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre (VCTC).

The campaign achieved incredible visibility and reach through a strategically developed mix of print advertisements, television and radio jingles, and advertisements on billboards, posters, bus shelters and several city crossings, in all the major languages – English, Hindi and Bengali.

In Phase I, the campaign focused on educating people about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, and debunking myths and prejudices associated with it. It also encouraged women to enquire about HIV/AIDS by calling a toll free number. This was done through advertisements that went something like this:

A married woman is shown saying: “But Bula-di, I can’t be infected. My husband’s a gentleman.”
Bula-di replies: “Why? Hasn’t he ever received blood?” The message at the bottom of the billboard was: ‘Contaminated blood and used syringes can cause AIDS. Call Bula-di on 1097 (toll free)’.

In another advertisement a married woman was shown asking, “But Bula-di, I have one partner. How can I be infected?” Bula-di matter-of-factly replies: “Are you sure that your partner is not an HIV carrier?” The message below was: ‘Unprotected sex can cause AIDS’.

A young man was shown asking, “But Bula-di, won’t using a condom mean suspecting my partner?” Pat comes the reply from the cheerful mascot, “Not at all. Rather it is a sign of a healthy relationship.”

The thrust of Phase II was to sensitise people about the symptoms of the disease and to provide information on VCTC centres, and advertisements now concentrated on this aspect.

So Bula-di is seen in conversation with a worried housewife who asks, “Bula-di, I know my husband has another sexual partner.” Bula-di’s advice was, “Then, both you and your husband should go for a blood test without delay.” The tagline was: ‘Get you blood tested at a VCTC in any hospital. Call Bula-di on 1097 (toll free).’

In Phase III of the campaign, Bula-di unhesitatingly engaged in discussions that even today are taboo in many Indian homes. From being an amiable myth buster, she gradually attempted to bring Bengali middle class couples out of the shell of prudishness. She talked about condom use in the public domain and attempted to blur the rigid divisions between private and public. Through messages like ‘Have fun responsibly. Always carry a condom…Protected sex is BEST SEX’ or ‘Use condoms in conjugal sex’ she tried to break the culture of silence that surrounds sexuality. This generated a dialogue in the public domain on sexuality, sexual pleasure, safe sex and condom usage.

The response

Part of my research included a small survey to map public responses to the campaign. An important aspect of the survey was to document people’s views on the content and presentation of the advertisements. The responses were diverse. Almost all respondents agreed that the advertisements on the billboards and the radio jingles are direct, comprehensible and bold. Bula-di had made inroads into that Bengali culture which, to an extent, is still Victorian in its morality. A young female lecturer pointed out that for the first time a woman’s sexual health had been addressed. She referred to one of the advertisements in which a single woman asked, “Bula-di, why am I suffering from lower abdominal pain and smelly discharge?” Bula-di replied, “This could be symptom of a sexually transmitted disease. Go to a hospital for treatment without delay”. The lecturer also pointed out that the messages had led to a shift in the public discourse on sexuality. The focus in the advertisements was on ‘safe sex’ rather than on ‘abstinence’, and ‘being faithful to a single partner’ which signalled an acknowledgement of the real world of sexual practices.

However, a group of parents and teachers found the content of the ads in the third phase objectionable. They said that such a candid campaign on condom promotion (‘Keep condoms handy: nobody knows when cupid strikes’) might be misinterpreted by young boys who may think that carrying a condom gave them the licence to have indiscriminate sex.

There was some criticism too of the style of the campaign. While the use of puppets and the narrative style of presentation made the public health campaign more appealing to the masses, some radio jingles and the ads on television were considered “flirtatious” and “titillating”. In other words, in their bid to pack entertainment into education, WBSAPCS used language that diluted the gravity of the issue being discussed.

Not going far enough

A deeper analysis of the campaign raises other questions about its effectiveness. The thrust of the campaign was to educate women on issues of HIV/AIDS and sexuality so that they could sensitise their menfolk. None of the advertisements foregrounded women or women’s health issues. Except for a single advertisement where a woman talked about her sexual health to Bula-di, most advertisements showed visuals of married women who solicit Bula-di’s advice for the protection of their husbands and children.

Such a projection covertly reinforces the stereotypical image of a self-sacrificing woman, the nurturer and protector of her family. By accepting the promiscuous and irresponsible nature of men, women yet again take on the onus of sensitising their partners. Besides, portraying women as a homogeneous category of care givers entrusted with the responsibility of sustaining the family undermines their multiple roles in social production and reproduction. The patriarchal system remained unchallenged in the campaign.

As mentioned earlier, messages in Phase III of the campaign became more candid, with discussions centred on safe sex and use of condoms. However, none of the ads addressed the issue of increasing violence against women that severely curbs a woman’s ability to negotiate safer sexual practices with her partner. While advertisements such as ‘Have fun responsibly. Always carry a condom…’, acknowledged the ‘pleasure’ aspect of sexual activities, they did not take cognisance of the fact that sexual activities are not always fun-filled for a woman – whether housewife or sex worker. Violence is an integral part of women’s sexual lives that have serious implications for their health as it makes them more vulnerable to the virus. Despite being a public health campaign, this issue received short shrift in the advertisements. Also, whether this representation of ‘fun’ is empowering for women was not very clear from the ads.

The messages of the campaign did become bolder with each phase, but it did not challenge the existing social roles, or urge educated women to question the roles that make them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Besides, candid messages have not helped us to understand the epidemic better. Fundamental information regarding the disease has not been adequately communicated through the campaign.

Bula-di has been an immensely successful ‘brand’. Over a period of two years, both our imaginative and visual spaces have been bombarded with varied images of the mascot. The flashy hoardings and catchy baselines were an instant hit with all generations and the cheery disposition of Bula-di went down well with audiences. The campaign definitely has a high recall value. But just because a campaign is popular does not mean it has achieved its objectives. In terms of creating awareness of, and a more sensitive approach to, HIV/AIDS, the campaign leaves a lot to be desired.

While it undoubtedly opened up dialogue and debate on HIV/AIDS and sexuality, the attempt to avoid ‘social discord’ meant glossing over many pressing social problems, as for instance the violence women are subjected to that increases their vulnerability to HIV. The problematic relations between gender, sexuality and health were never touched upon. Instead, the audio-visual material was replete with stereotypes of sexually demanding men and passive and “requesting” women, women worrying about promiscuous and adulterous husbands, women anxious about their husbands’ health and never about their own. How effective is this baggage of stereotypes in Bula-di’s mission of breaking new ground with her radical frankness?

(Sreerupa Sengupta is a researcher with the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

Infochange News & Features, February 2008

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