Turns out, popular media is not always a mindless distraction. There is evidence that so-called “education-entertainment,” which weaves important information about health, safety, and cultural issues into an enticing plot line, can be highly effective in combating cultural prejudices and encouraging positive behavior. In some cases, exposure to progressive media is enough to upend societal preconceptions. For example, a recent study shows that one year after cable television was introduced into several rural Indian communities, fewer viewers said it would be acceptable for a husband to beat his wife than said so a year earlier. The study also found that there was a reduced preference for male children in Indian communities with cable access compared to those without it.
Progressive television programs in Brazil have had a comparably powerful effect, as writers and producers have taken on social and cultural issues, adding both more drama and more educational value to their programs. For example, a 2008 study found that after Brazilian soap operas began portraying families that were smaller than the national average, the fertility rate dropped in the regions where these shows aired. Women viewing these programs sought to emulate them and, combined with greater access to contraception, this led to a declining fertility rate and an increase in women’s independence and ability to pursue educational and career opportunities.
Similarly, television programs can encourage entrepreneurship. Simplemente María (Simply Maria), a Peruvian soap opera that aired in 1969, followed the fictional story of a young woman who moved to the city, learned to read and sew, and eventually became a famous fashion designer. The show was wildly popular and aired five days a week for two years. The rags-to-riches story, ripe with lessons about perseverance and women’s independence, led to a substantial spike in enrollment in literacy classes throughout the country.
In Pakistan, NGOs like the Aurat Foundation have long used radio-based soap operas to reach rural women, many of whom are literate, with important social and health messges. Now, deeply contentious issues are increasingly examined through popular culture outlets, such as film and television. Bol, the highest-grossing Pakistani film of 2011, tells the story of the strained relationship between a father and his transgendered son. And the upcoming show Taan, a spin-off of the American show Glee, tackles issues related to homosexuality, Islamic extremism, and interfaith relationships. The widespread popularity of Bol and high expectations for Taan, in a country where homosexuality is punishable with life imprisonment, illustrate how popular media can challenge cultural norms even in repressive societies.
International organizations would be remiss to ignore this rich opportunity to facilitate social change and raise awareness about important health issues. Indeed, many development organizations, such as the Population Media Center, have already taken advantage of the power of popular media to effect social change. And several producers and governments have taken the initiative to enhance their television programs with educational content. Take Apwe Plezi: a Saint Lucian radio program funded by the government that aired in the 1990s and addressed controversial issues including HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and domestic abuse. Research has shown that the program “inﬂuenced listeners to increase their awareness of contraceptives, improve important attitudes about ﬁdelity and family relations, and adopt family planning methods.” In addition, Soul City, a popular South African soap opera, produced in part by public health activists, educates viewers about the dangers of unprotected sex and HIV/AIDS. The show is as popular as Coca-Cola is in the country and viewers are nearly four times more likely to use a condom than non-viewers are.
The success of Soul City need not be limited to South Africa. Development organizations should attempt to emulate the show’s model and harness the power of entertainment to effect change. Funding progressive and popular programs abroad, which challenge the audience’s preconceptions and provide exciting entertainment, could be a useful way for wealthy countries to further development goals. Sometimes soap operas are simpy more effective than lectures or campaigns at transforming society.