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United Nations ad plays on unboxing videos to stop transphobia in India


By Amit Bapna | Editor-at-large

April 5, 2022 | 5 min read

United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) has launched a campaign along with creative agency FCB India. It hopes to use the power of creative storytelling to sensitize larger communities on the rights of transgender children.

United Nations’s ‘Unbox me’ campaign for transgender children

United Nations’s ‘Unbox me’ campaign for transgender children

It is a harsh truth that the issue of the marginalization of transgender children, which is universal, in most instances remains hidden for a long time. To address this and to bring out their story to a larger audience, UNAIDS launched the ‘Unbox Me’ campaign.

Speaking with The Drum, Mahesh Mahalingam, director, communications, and global advocacy, UNAIDS, said, “The initiative, both the film and the ‘Unbox me’ project, is a first of its kind, bringing to the fore an issue sensitively and impactfully, that most are afraid to highlight.”

Swati Bhattacharya, creative chairperson, FCB India, said, “ “In the case of trans children, they need to hide their box of treasures since some of their most precious possessions don’t fit the gender norm that society expects them to conform to.”

The film was launched as a lead-up to the International Transgender Day of visibility which falls on March 31st.

Data tells a sad story

As per a study by the Indian Journal for psychological medicine, 31% of transgender persons in India end their life by committing suicide, and 50% of them have attempted suicide at least once before their 20th birthday.

Research shows that transgender kids feel discomfort with their gender from an early age - as early as two years - when they start closeting their true gender identity and boxing it like a secret. The lack of societal inclusivity adds to their misery, and it eventually leads to an unloved childhood.

To bring this issue out in the mainstream, UNAIDS along with the creative agency FCB India worked on the ‘Unbox Me’ campaign as a creative exploration of the theme of secrecy and hiding, that most such children go through but one that transgender children go through in a psychologically debilitating way.

Says Swati Bhattacharya, creative chairperson, FCB India, who conceptualized both this campaign as well as the ‘mirror’ film, “Many prominent people in the community unboxed the boxes on their social media feed, sharing their feelings and thoughts as the reality of countless children suppressing their spirit became a tangible reality one could experience.”

The solution lies in all stakeholders - parents, teachers, family members, and community leaders – starting to accept all children as they are.

The ‘unbox’ narrative

The campaign is based on a very simple yet powerful insight - children love to create hidden places where they can hide their precious stuff safely and securely. But for trans children, this act of hiding treasures becomes a way of hiding their identity from disapproving eyes.

In 2021, UNAIDS had launched the campaign “see me as I am” to raise awareness of the issues of gender identity among children.

Mahalingam, says, “The short film ‘mirror’ was so successful that we had many members of the community approach us with their stories of how it was to grow up as a child.” They shared their memories and the objects they identified with their childhood.

"This led to the idea of taking their memory boxes and introducing them to the community, to influencers and opinion makers so that they can put themselves in the shoes of the transgender children and spread the message of inclusion", he adds.

The creative treatment was kept simple, with Bhattacharya interviewing the people, and through the interviews, the unboxing stories were told, she shares.

Interestingly, the videos are a play on popular unboxing videos, in which people unpack gadgets and toys - only this time, the unboxings have a much deeper meaning.

‘Unbox Me’ film (2022)

The 'mirror' film (2021)

Harnessing the power of storytelling in amplifying social issues

Mahesh Mahalingam began his career in advertising before spending the last 30 years on AIDS response programmes. He feels that in the last three decades, advertising and public service communication has become an integral part of development communication, and when done well, storytelling is the best form of bringing about change.

To amplify the transgender kids’ stories to a wide audience, the creative deployment was done with a plan - the scene setter film, followed by first-person stories, and then getting influencers to immerse themselves in the first-person stories, was the order followed.

Adds Bhattacharya, “With this simple and powerful campaign, we want the viewer to be the activist and use the box as a tool to help change the narrative of this social issue to one of acceptance and inclusion.”

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