Entertainment education can be used as a catalyst for changing behaviour
Posted Friday, June 15 2012 at 20:00
Back in the mid-1970s, a soap opera did what no one thought possible; it convinced Mexicans to have fewer babies.
Within a few months of the daily airing of Acompáñame (Come Along With Me), Mexicans began to use contraceptives with gusto.
Within five years, the rate of population growth slowed down by a full percentage point — a screeching halt by demographic standards.
Of course, radio and television shows had been associated with changes in social behaviour before (think of Britain’s The Archers).
But this was the first occasion that a telenovela was specifically designed to achieve a development objective, and make money at the same time.
“Entertainment education” was born. And an avalanche of replication followed — in India, in Kenya, in Tanzania, and in many other countries around the world.
Fast-forward to 2011. Entertainment education has become a science. What was once a collection of experiments in public communication has become a powerful tool in public policy.
What was meant to foster family planning has been scaled up to tackle some of the toughest problems in development like gender biases, corruption, climate change, global diseases and financial illiteracy.
You can now target the attitudes that make us indifferent toward — or culprit of — abused women, crooked politicians, polluting factories, malaria victims, or loan sharks. How did it happen? What changed?
First, technology has allowed for two-way communication. The good old radio and TV have been complemented by computers, cell-phones, and the Internet.
Your audience can tell you in real time what impact, if any, you are having.
Text-messages, wall-posts and tweets provide instantaneous feedback that you need to refine your message. Long, long gone are hand-written letters mailed in by viewers.
Second, we have a better understanding of how societies learn.
They do so in steps: awareness (“A sex virus is going around”) is followed by knowledge (“It’s called HIV and you catch it through unprotected sex”), then by a new attitude (“I’m worried about Aids”), and finally by a new behaviour (“We use condoms”).
Attach those steps to a person who audiences can identify with (a “role model”), and you have a lesson in social conduct.
Third, competition in media has become much tougher. The market for entertainment is saturated.
Viewers and listeners have hundreds of choices, even in poor countries. This has opened the doors of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood to NGOs and academics, that can volunteer solid and ready-to-use information, rich in dramatic value.
Who do you think provides the research when your favourite detective show tackles a “serious” issue?