Not many in the advertising world can come up on stage and declare, “The campaign I worked on, I led, is one of the major reasons why the World Health Organisation declared India polio-free in February 2014.”
Piyush Pandey and a few others have the right to state such words.
On 22 August 2023, Ogilvy’s chief creative officer worldwide, and executive chairman India, once again reached lakhs of Indian televisions, this time through name rather than an ad, after Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) host Amitabh Bachchan recalled the Pulse Polio campaign, and how the legacy adman’s idea to make him scold viewers turned the campaign into an effective nationwide hit.
The game show’s studio audience, in a new offering this season, gets to answer a question from the viewers watching at home. The question, on that particular episode, was to name the disease India gained freedom from in February 2014.
To trace Pulse Polio’s success is to go back to 2002, seven years after its inception, when the Ministry of Health and UNICEF got Ogilvy & Mather (now Ogilvy) on board to boost the immunsation rate of the polio vaccine, which until then was poor.
Pandey, speaking to afaqs! over a call, says the government had done a lot of work, but he thought “it was a soft approach, and nothing was really moving.”
The game changer was getting actor Amitabh Bachchan on board who, by the way, worked on the campaign pro bono.
“We had a great cause and the most credible celebrity. What we needed was a good idea. Not the run-of-the-mill, government-type endorsements,” writes Pandey in his book ‘Pandemonium’ explaining the scene right before the campaign took off.
He, over the call, says a thought occurred to him on how “Mr. Bachchan is known as the ‘Angry Young Man’, why can’t he be the ‘Angry Old Man’?”
Every family has a senior member who has the right to be upset with you out of affection and concern, and they have the right to shout at you out of that. This was the insight Pandey used to make Bachchan scold the viewers.
And it worked. Bachchan, in the KBC episode, revealed how a WHO official visited an Indian village and a mother told her she ensured her child received the polio shot only because Mr Bachchan was angry at them.
But to have Big B, the moniker for one of India’s most famous personalities, scold viewers, did it get the client’s proverbial approval? No, it did not.
“Not really,” Pandey manages to blurt amid a short burst of giggles. He, however, stood his ground: “Even Mr Bachchan is on board, and if you want to work with me, this is the way it will work,” he argued. The health ministry officials understood the idea a lot more once the first ad was shot.
The Ogilvy creative chief wrote the scripts with then-associate creative director Ajay Gahlaut. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan directed and edited the ads.
Pandey does not hold a grudge against the government officials, because the idea was a new thing. “If you went and told somebody that Mr Bachchan would come and give you a firing, any big client would be scared of doing that,” he gives a gist of that time and how the officials must have felt on hearing the idea.
The budget of the campaign, despite its ambition, was abysmal. Such were the lows that the crew had to shoot at locations of Bachchan’s other films and ad shoots during lunch breaks. “We used to shoot in 20-25 minutes and get out of there,” remarks the adman.
The budget was not the only issue the Pulse Polio campaign encountered. People, because of issues of caste and creed, were against immunising their children. The makers addressed this issue too.
We didn’t point out which caste or creed, we said don’t let anything come in the way of preventing polio from happening, explains Pandey, and states, “These things have to be written very sensitively. We said what we wanted to say, but we did not say it in an offensive fashion.”
The ad, as time passed, also saw appearances from celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Aishwarya Rai, and Jaya Bachchan. It was a push from the government to show people that many famous people were behind this campaign.
Pandey disagreed with the move because the celebrities were mere additions to the script tailored to Amitabh Bachchan.
While acknowledging their willingness to come on board, he remarks, “They (government) said, ‘Put it in the end shot’. If I wanted SRK and Sachin, I’d give them a role to play. They did not fit in because the script was about the ‘Angry Old Man’.”