Heroes for a Cause

Heroes for a Cause

The Heroes Project advocates the cause of HIV/AIDS using the media and the entertainment industry as the springboard, reports Nayantara Som.

2007081528-7876351When the first case of HIV/AIDS was diagnosed on Indian soil in 1986, most people dismissed it as a transient bubble. Two decades later, India tops the charts, surpassing even South Africa. The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) estimated that 5.21 million people were living with HIV in 2005, giving an adult prevalence of 0.91 per cent. This represents a slight increase from the 2004 estimate, and a substantial increase from 4.58 million in 2002.

Against this background, the Heroes Project, an initiative started by Hollywood actor Richard Gere, and Parmeshwar Godrej is a beacon of hope for those who have been living a life of stigma and ostracism. The project aims to advocate and educate the masses on issues related to HIV/AIDS, through the Indian media, entertainment industry and business houses.


2007081529-8911057“We identify the suitable celebrity who can address the issue of HIV/AIDS, and sit with them, explaining them their key role in the campaign”

– Kanika Singh Executive Director

Heroes Project

The story began at a fundraising event for paediatric AIDS jointly organised by Gere and Godrej, called ‘A Time for Heroes, India’. Kanika Singh, Executive Director, Heroes Project, relates, “The event, held in December 2002, was hugely successful and brought together the Indian media and entertainment industry which vowed to use their combined strength for advocacy on issues related to HIV/AIDS.” It revealed to the founders the immense power and influence wielded by the mass media and the entertainment industry to publicise the burning issue of HIV/AIDS. “The founders then wanted to build a long-term mechanism to promote the cause of HIV/AIDS, keeping the momentum going using the forum of the mass media,” Singh explains.

The project was launched nationwide in 2004, by tying up with the Avahan India AIDS Initiative, an offshoot of the US-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. An amount of $2.4 million was funded to the project for a period of three years. Simultaneously, the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation also collaborated with the project for the production of campaign advertisements, for the technology involved in their production and in helping the project to work with the Indian media.

Media Star

The project announced its first public education partnership with Star Television Network in July 2004. “Star TV volunteered to air our messages to the masses. They allocated airtime for us and also agreed to provide content writers. Most significantly, everything was done free,” informs Singh. Says Yash Khanna, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, Star India, “Star, as the key media partner, provided the project with a reach of an estimated 70 million viewers and huge amounts of free airtime across their various channels annually, over a three-year period. The success motivated us to extend the campaign for another two years through 2009. The announcement was made at the XVI International AIDS Conference in August 2006.”

Co-operation, Co-ordination, Celebrity

Celebrity tie-ups: The Heroes Project has in the past, and still continues, to conduct massive campaigns in alliance with Bollywood celebrities. Personalities like Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor, Shilpa Shetty, Bipasha Basu and Sunny Deol have joined hands with the project. Singh recalls, “In one of our campaigns at New Delhi, actor Salman Khan addressed a crowd of nearly 15,000 people saying ‘If tomorrow I have AIDS, will you stop watching my films?’ In the same way an HIV affected person is like any normal human being. This was one of the most moving statements made by a celebrity.” Here, the purpose of involving celebrities goes beyond a ‘ribbon cutting ceremony’. The main idea is to show them a strategy instead of making them lip sync about the issue. “We identify the suitable celebrity for the campaign who can address the issue of HIV/AIDS, and then sit with them for a couple of hours, explaining their key role in the campaign, and the facts of the issue,” says Singh. For instance, when a campaign was organised to raise awareness among truck drivers, Sunny Deol, their icon, was chosen to address a crowd of 4,000.

Actress Shilpa Shetty is another star committed to the cause of AIDS who supports the Heroes Project in its mission. Every year on World AIDS Day, Shilpa Shetty addresses crowds on the issue. In fact, at the Big Brother show, the actress announced that if she won the show, she would donate the money to the Heroes Project.

Media tie-ups: The mass media have been a springboard for the project to conduct social events and campaigns. “We sit with programme and content writers of media houses, explain facts, give case studies of which the media is not aware,” informs Singh.

This is done with doctors, writers and even HIV-affected people sitting across the table. “HIV-affected people tell their stories, the stigma and discrimination that they suffer but as another person’s story. It is only towards the end that they disclose that the story that they narrated was their own. Thus, we show the press ways to portray the issue in an entertaining manner,” reveals Singh. Sometimes, even a touch of humour is added to such messages. Ogilvy airs new advertisements every eight weeks.

Short Messages

The purpose of involving celebrities goes beyond ‘ribbon cutting ceremony’

The project collaborated with STAR network and Ogilvy for an SMS (text messaging) campaign where the viewer could send an SMS to 7827 to get information on HIV/AIDS via a menu. “The number was given at the bottom of the screen during advertisements and in a month and a half that they aired, we got around two-and-a-half lakh responses,” informs Singh. This interactive campaign was rolled out in two phases and centred around HIV/AIDS on Star’s short code number 7827, titled ‘Gain from Gyaan’. Aptly aimed at 15-24-year-olds, the contest offered users the facility to access HIV/AIDS information on their cell phones in an exciting format. This medium provided easy access to lifesaving information for the younger generation and drew an extraordinary response of approximately 2,00,000 hits over a three-month period; 90,000 of which were unique numbers. The success of this campaign earned a special mention at the XVI International AIDS Conference, as an innovative and exemplary paradigm for youth outreach.”

A second phase of the campaign was held, again involving viewers. Says Khanna, “The ongoing initiative, called the ‘Specific Query Response’, enables an individual to seek any information on HIV/AIDS through an SMS from a trained medical counsellor. This initiative has garnered overwhelming response and has been receiving an average of 800 SMS hits per day for the last three months.”

Government tie-ups: The Heroes Project also works closely with Government organisations and NGOs both at the national and the regional level. At the national level, the project works hand-in-hand with NACO in its innumerable social campaigns. NACO buys huge airtime on Doordarshan and the ads that they air are sometimes those made by the Heroes Project. Singh adds, “Whenever NACO needs media content which includes involvement of celebrities and eminent personalities, they always call us.”

The project also works to spread awareness among local people with the regional branches of NACO, i.e. the State AIDS Control Societies (SACS) and local bodies and organisations. For example, in Tamil Nadu, the project is currently working with local bodies to strategise a media campaign all over the state. Says Supriya Sahu, Project Director, SACS, Tamil Nadu, “The Heroes Project has the capability to mobilise the media and celebrities, and we always approach them for their professionalism. They know the right mix of media to be involved in an event.” Last year on World AIDS Day, SACS and the Heroes Project collaborated on a campaign called ‘Test is Best’ where people were educated on the importance of visiting a testing centre. “Tamil Nadu has the highest number of testing centres in the country (730 Government testing centres and another 20 centres by other organisations). So through this campaign, we wanted to remove the fear of testing,” adds Sahu. Apart from this, both the organisations also ran a campaign in around 9,500 schools in Tamil Nadu of which chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand was the official ambassador.

The Heroes Project, with Avahan India (which operates in six states), formulates strategies, campaigns and events. “We are working actively in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and most recently in Karnataka,” reveals Singh.

The Road Ahead

It has not been an easy road for the Heroes Project. “The very nature of our work is a challenge. We look for tie-ups which are free, and that is a stumbling block. Anyone can pay celebrities and the press, but to get them committed to the mission of awareness is a huge task. Moreover, convincing media houses to give free airtime is another task,” informs Singh. Nevertheless, the mission has been accomplished and now there are many upcoming projects. As a part of its advocacy campaigns, the project is also tying up with business houses to conduct workplace programmes. In Tamil Nadu, with SACS, an event calendar is being formulated. Says Sahu, “Events for every month like blood donation camps and a campaign with auto and taxi drivers are being formulated with the Heroes Project.”

These larger than life campaigns can make a world of a difference to those living with HIV/AIDS.