National ad campaign in India urges Parsis to get married and have kids!

parsi posterBack in 1989 I joined the BBC in London and was very fortunate to have met my beautiful wife Fenella who then worked as the executive assistant to the Head of BBC World Service Training.

I often tell friends that joining the BBC was the best thing I ever did in my life and I was incredibly lucky to have found someone as wonderful as Fenella who also turned out to be a Parsi! With a small community of around 5,000 in the UK and just 80,000 globally, the odds-on meeting the girl of my dreams who was also Parsi was not high, to say the least!

Years later, when I entered the PR agency world, it appeared that my impending marriage became a national news story here in the UK!

So it was with some amusement that I read this morning that Parzor Foundation, with a little help from Bombay Parsi Panchayat and the Indian Ministry of Minority Affairs, has come up with a print campaign that quite simply urges Parsis to get married and have children.

Yes, really!

OK, so there’s an issue, recognised by UNESCO, that my tiny ethnic community may not make it through to the end of this century as to be a Parsi you need to have been born a Zoroastrian, and our faith doesn’t allow people to convert, largely on historical reasons that date back thousands of years and was a condition imposed on us by the Hindu Kings when we left Persia to escape persecution from the Romans and Muslims and settled in our adopted country India.

But I doubt running a national print campaign in India is actually the answer, is it? Falling in love and meeting the person of your dreams is actually down to luck and chance in most cases and imploring people in my community to marry each other could look as being a bit naive or even desperate.

However, I do think there’s a more serious issue that needs to be addressed and it’s one of religious leadership within the Zoroastrian community coupled with the relevance of our faith in the lives of its adherents.

Like it or not, I think we are fast approaching the point where inter-marriage with others from different religious faiths is probably a more tenable solution to the current problem, although I realise there are very strong views on this issue, which often bring out the worst xenophobic tendencies among some Parsis in our community.

But our faith was never intended to be the exclusive preserve of those of the Royal Court as exemplified by Cyrus the Great and Xerxes the Great from ancient Persian times.

Parzor Foundation is a Delhi-based NGO that works towards preserving Zoroastrian heritage and Madison BMB is the creative agency behind this humour-laden effort, titled ‘Jiyo Parsi’.

The campaign attributes the dwindling numbers of the Parsi community to four main factors, namely, an increasing preference for staying single, for marrying late, and for having only one child, and, of course, to infertility.

While the campaign speaks about each of these reasons, it focuses on in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) for which the government is offering financial help to members of the Parsi community, under the Jiyo Parsi scheme.

“The Parsi community in India has gone from 114,000 people in 1941 to just 61,000 people in 2001. And more disturbingly, for every 800 deaths there are only 200 births in the community. We thought, instead of making it just about IVF, we should talk about the entire issue, about the way the entire Parsi population is on the decline,” explains Sam Balsara, managing director, Madison World and himself Parsi.

Just to put this into perspective, India’s population reached 1bn in 2001 and is likely to become 1.3bn by 2025, becoming the world’s most populous country and overtaking China.

“While doing our research,” explains Shernaz Cama, director of the UNESCO Parzor Project, “we came across some places where, hundred years ago, around 1,000 Parsis used to live. But now they are just deserted villages. The whole point of the campaign is not about marriage; instead, it’s about having more children, because that can keep the population stable.”

The irony of the situation is not lost on Balsara – a mass media campaign that’s targeted at just a handful of Parsis who’re based in different parts of the country.

The ad agency feels humour can help to lighten the message and leverage the “Parsi sense of humour” to address the problem at hand. Perhaps they should’ve employed a stand up comedian instead?

“We decided as a team to put the messaging out in a way that wouldn’t be bleak or morbid. On the contrary, we decided to go the other way and use humour as a weapon,” explains Raj Nair, chief creative officer, Madison BMB.

Other folk in ad land tend to agree with this strategy, but whether it will work in encouraging Parsis to get married and have babies only time will tell and it would be a very brave planner who thinks there’s a correlation that could be made on such an outcomes that can be plotted on an excel spreadsheet!

“I think it’s based on certain fundamental insights into the community. That’s what makes it incredibly real and effective. It’s laced with self-deprecating humour which is also the leitmotif of the brand – ‘the Parsi’. Overall, a glorious effort,” claims Swapan Seth, CEO of Equus Red Cell, a WPP-owned advertising agency in India.

But telling adults not use condoms in order to get pregnant probably wasn’t the most intelligent aspect of the campaign, was it?

Let’s hope that the campaign helps to raise the issue so it becomes a talking point rather than being seen as a clumsy attempt to reverse the birth rate in India’s smallest ethnic minority community.

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