Social Awareness Campaigns and Ethics

“A photograph taken and posted on a travel website by an unknown foreigner nearly drove Thilakavathy, a 25-year-old mother, to suicide .”

Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (Tansacs) used this photograph, without Thilakavathy’s knowledge or permission in hoardings and posters all over the state, as part of an HIV awareness campaign. And landed in court.

TANSACS had used the picture of the mother and child with the caption- ‘an HIV+ve woman does not necessarily infect her child with AIDS’.

Thilakavathy informed Chennai High Court that friends and relatives had distanced themselves from her family, thinking that she and her child were HIV+ve. They were both in fact, not HIV+ve.

“The High Court agreed with Thilakavathy that the ads, with captions suggesting she was an AIDS patient,were a serious problem that will affect the social status of the family’.

The court issued notices to the Health Department, TANSACS and Chennai AIDS Prevention and Control Society who were the respondents.

TANSACS’ counsel told the court that an authorised advertisement company had created the campaign and that they were not connected with the advertisements. The Judge rejected this and directed Thilakavathy’s counsel to implead the advertisement company as a respondent in the case.

“Justice Suguna of the Madras High Court, hearing Thilakavathy’s plea for relief and compensation, directed Tansacs to draw up guidelines for using photographs from the Internet and ordered removal of all hoardings and posters with the photo within a week.”

Final judgement on her demand for a compensation of Rs 1 crore and unconditional public apology from Tansacs will be pronounced after a month.”

So what do you think?

Was it ethical for the advertising agency to use Thilakavathy’s photograph in the ad campaign without her consent?

Should TANSACS have verified that the persons in the photograph had given their consent before approving the ads- given the social stigma associated with HIV+ve status?

Will the monetary compensation Thilakavathy will probably get really conpensate her for the mental suffering she underwent?

In my opinion, even if Thilakavathy had been HIV+ve the campaign should not have used her photograph without her consent.

If they could not find her or did not know who she was, then they should have used some other photograph. As promoters of a social awareness campaign, TANSACS had a duty to act ethically.

Perhaps the creators of this campaign and the officials who sanctioned it could be featured in such posters so they could get a taste of how it feels?



  1. inadequate homework on part of the agency and TANSACA… even if the compensation is granted, it may not immediately cancel out the social trouble that the woman has been put through..


  2. I fully share all your sentiments. Even if she was HIV positive, they should not have used her photograph without her consent.Although compensation will not undo the damage that has been done, it must be given. In fact, the court should on its own double it to Rs 2 crores to set an example.


  3. Another instance, reflecting how insensitive we are to others feelings…Though one cant put an exact value to the sufferings she had undergone, the compensation should be such as the people who are repsonsible for this are hurt severely…Going by the past records, Indian courts have not delivered huge compensation for victims.( to my knowledge)I wont be surprised that the court will finally end up giving 10lacs..


  4. absolutely ! And its not only such campaigns. Photographs clicked is a product of creative thought and skill. It just cant be used without a permission, reference or such applicable terms.

    And this case is especially gross. Where a snap clicked was misused. I think she ought to get a huge compensation. Even then, her suffering is not going to go down !

    This is another atrocity at its heights. I hope the final judgement is heavy.


  5. We cannot compensate this damage done to the mother and child with any amount of money. A grain of doubt will always be there for people who come in contact with them. The lawyers will look for some loophole and a token amount will be given to them as compensation.

    What you have suggested is best, Manju –

    Perhaps the creators of this campaign and the officials who sanctioned it could be featured in such posters so they could get a taste of how it feels? We can only dream.


  6. Absolutely! It was totally inethical to use her photographs without her consent – irrespective of whether she is or not HIV +. And this is valdi for any kind of advertising/campaigns.. In no circumstance should a person's pics be used without their knowledge and permission.. Though the compensation cannot undo the damage – I think it will, to some extent, prevent this from happening again.


  7. horrible when things like this happen they shale u up…i am not even sure what she will get in indian court i think what they need is media support unless media makes it a big issue it will just slip somewhere


  8. Gauri– Yes, it certainly was inadequate homework, even if they did not do it on purpose.

    Vinodji– I agree, sizeable compensation must be given which may act as a deterrent for anyone thinking of doing this sort of thing in the future.

    Sunder– I also wonder how we can be so insensitive to the feelings of others! Empathy is very rarely seen these days.

    Sraboney– I agree- both are responsible. Did you ever come across any instances like this?


  9. Kavi– You are right- not just in such 'sensitive' cases, but in general, too, photographs should not be used without permission.At least not commercially as in the campaign by the ad agency in this case.

    Sandhya– Yes, that is the sad thing, probably people will always have a bit of doubt about the mother.

    Smitha– Yes, I hope she does get compensation- the court will decide in a month's time…

    Monika– The right type of media support can be helpful.Going to the media is sometimes risky, though. We can never be sure when they will unnecessarily sensationalize a case!


  10. Using someone's picture without their permission in an ad is an invasion of their privacy. No amount of compensation can wipe away the trauma that has been caused. But an example should be made by awarding a very high compensation to deter such incidents from happening in the future.


  11. Shocking!!Totally agree with the compensation. These govt. organizations need to be more responsible in their behaviour.Firstly TANSACA stole the pics. Secondly they didnot have the minimum sense to take consent from those who appeared in the pic.Sad very sad….and it can happen with anyone of us.


  12. Working in the field of AIDS control is certainly not only about medication protocols and setting up clinics. It is also about bringing dignity to the lives of those afflicted, many times , due to no fault of their own. The Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (Tansacs), more than anyone else, has erred hugely, and needs to be aware of this.

    What else can you expect when people are appointed to things with the sole purpose of increasing their own importance, and to hell with those for whom the agency /society exists.

    Like you said, the office bearers of the Tansacs themselves need to figure on these ads prominently, for a longish period each. Possibly on prominent city billboards.

    And the lady needs to get, not only a one time compensation , but, some type lifetime monetary grant for the resettlement of her family. Shame on Tansacs.


  13. Sagarone– Yes, a high compensation should be awarded so that people will think twice before doing such things.

    IndianPundit– Hi!
    I agree, government organisations need to be more careful. And yes, that is the scary part- it could happen to anyone!

    Ugich Konitari– Yes, these organisations forget the very purpose of their work. They just go on working soullessly- as we say in Marathi- Patya taktat.

    Judging by your posts, you seem to be enjoying your vacation! And meeting fellow bloggers, too!


  14. another no-brain thing from the agency..they must have understood the social environment in our country which didn't understand that AIDS is a non-contagious disease… and also sees the person who was infected as the culprits and not as victim..and also whatever maybe the reason what they have done is wrong.. they should have shown that woman in the ad.. the technology is grown so much, they could have developed some cartoon characters for this.. instead of going for real members..


  15. This is just so unethical! How can anyone do this?forget taking consent these people announced she was HIV+!!!and that is not even the point ..the point is the sheer gall ! WTH?

    no monetary comepensation can be enough…

    Perhaps the creators of this campaign and the officials who sanctioned it could be featured in such posters so they could get a taste of how it feels?.

    yes perhaps they should be :/


  16. I can only condemn the audacity of the agency concerned in using the woman's photo without her permission, especially in a sensitive ad like this one.The agency needs to be pulled up severely and to compensate somehow for the anguish caused.


  17. TANSACA and the officials clearing the ad must be penalised and the agency must be black-listed forthwith.I feel the compensation should be much more..if one sixer on the field is worth few crores,this lady should be given at least 10 crores.


  18. Kanagu– That is a great idea, using cartoon characters or computer generated characters instead of real people!

    Indyeah– Yes, it was highly unethical for them to use the photograph and suggest that she was HIV+ve!

    Sucharita– Yes, the ad agency should be censured and compensation given to the woman. This is total lack of professionalism!

    Chowlaji– I agree, govt. officials as well as the ad agency should be penalised, and the ad agency perhaps black-listed as you suggest.


  19. What a co incidence that you have written about this. I was just reading a similar piece by Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. They were protesting the use of children's (poor Indian children what else , sick!) by, an initiative of the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action) for a brochure. Were the children asked?

    This happens all the time.And it is exploitation no doubt.I am from the social service sector and does not surprise me because even these agencies and professionals have set agendas and the motivation is not always beyonf reproach.

    The compensation is necessary and should be high so that in future it acts as a serious preventive measure. Even then I am sure thsi will go on because they will just get the consent from the pasrty concerned. The consent will be uninformed consent but its a loophole which will be amply used.


  20. Solilo– Yes, it is. Unfortunate that the ad agency and the Aids Control Society does not think so!

    Chrysalis– The example you have narrated is also very sad. How the unfortunate and underprivileged are always exploited!


  21. So unfortunate and shocking that this happened. Of course I feel the photo should not have been used without her permission. I agree with all your sentiments expressed.


  22. Compensation must be paid. Thsi is the second occasion when I am reading about misuse of photographs on blogs. I r4ead one on Lilly's Life recently.

    The problem is that the agencies respond to poor victims with great insensitivity.

    If this were to happen to say a bollywood star [even if of yesteryears] she would have got a hefty compensation and that too quickly.It is bad to be poor, and it is worse to be a poor victim!



  23. yes, it is extremely insensitive on the part of the agency and TANSACA. Being in a similar field, these are my observations. Getting to be an agency for a government run organisation ( I suspect TANSACA is one) is a difficult task. One has to resort to many unethical methods as in any governemnt office. Secondly, the organisation would not have paid for any of the models and the agency may have been forced to use some stock pictures or off the net. But a little thought and sensitivity could have ensured that the woman in question was spared the trauma.


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