Tune in Tomorrow: Soap Operas for Social Marketing

Last week I attended a meeting at which Bill Ryerson, the founder of the Population Media Center (PMC), discussed his organization’s entertainment education work in the developing world. PMC, along with other organizations like Population Communications International (PCI) and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs, creates soap operas in developing countries (excuse me, “serial dramas”) that are designed to bring about positive changes within those societies. Topics that are covered include health issues like HIV and family planning, as well as social issues like adult education, the role of women in society and child trafficking.

PMC follows the Sabido Method, named for Mexican television producer Miguel Sabido, to develop the plotlines and structure of their programs. Back in the 1970s, Sabido brought together several behavioral, communication and learning theories to identify how to encourage positive behavior change via entertainment education. Most notably, social learning theory guides the development of characters who serve as positive and negative role models and illustrate the rewards and “punishments” that come from their behavioral choices.

Transitional characters — who are designed to be the characters the audience members most identify with — waver between the old ways of life and new behaviors. They do not immediately adopt the new behaviors, and may even try and fail before succeeding, but as the audience watches these characters go through this transition they can learn how to do so in their own lives.

Unlike American soap operas, which run indefinitely, these Sabido-style serial dramas generally run on television or radio for six months to a couple of years before reaching the conclusion of the storylines. In fact, in order to give the audience members sufficient time to form emotional bonds with the characters, they may provide 50 episodes of pure entertainment before introducing the social issues.

Bill Ryerson noted that entertainment programs are so effective in getting people’s attention and bringing about change because of their emotional content. Emotion enhances memory (just think of how well you can remember what you were doing on 9/11/01 vs. 9/10/01). When people have an emotional response, they remember the situation to which they were responding. And the emotional bonds that the audience develops with the characters heighten their reactions to the messages in the program.

A recent New Yorker article discusses this approach as it was being taught at a PCI training in Mexico:

Dramas produced according to the “Sabido method”–his formula for mapping out the characters’ fates-have aired in a hundred countries, from Peru to Kenya and China. Some are large-scale television productions that cost up to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars per episode, with funding from U.S. AID or the United Nations, and some are seventy-five-dollar radio serials made by a local N.G.O. In 1992, a radio soap opera with a built-in AIDS-prevention message was produced in Tanzania with P.C.I.’s help. One region was cut off from the broadcast, and, after two years, researchers found that there were significant differences in condom use between that area and the rest of the country. Other studies have had similar results. Nevertheless, given the soap’s reputation as the poor woman’s recreational drug, the P.C.I. staff felt obliged to spend the first day of the workshop persuading health-care personnel to take the form seriously.

“If they sense that the program is ‘educational,’ they’ll be gone in a second,” Enriqueta Valdez Curiel, a P.C.I. consultant, said at a conference session. Let’s say you want to make a show urging pregnant women to visit midwives. You write a story about Martha the midwife and the busy day she spends ministering to women in labor. That, Curiel said, is a public-service announcement. But give Martha a husband who wants her to quit her job, a daughter who accidentally becomes pregnant, or a village healer who attacks her-“Give her conflict and obstacles, lots of giros,” or twists of fate-and you have a soap opera.

“These are characters who constantly find obstacles to overcome, but they keep on trying,” Curiel said.

…In a typical soap opera, the heroine is subjected to an unfaithful husband, abduction, amnesia. She bears her fate bravely, but, to the dismay of feminist cultural critics, she waits for romance to redeem her and, too often, drifts back into a doomed marriage. In a Sabido soap, “you can’t just punish, punish, punish the good ones,” Curiel said, “or people will feel powerless to change.”

But you can’t get rid of the love stories, either. The trick is to get a health message across while still producing a soap opera that anyone would want to watch–to integrate escapism and didacticism. Prenatal nutrition and oral-rehydration therapy are not the usual stuff of soap operas. But poverty has its own built-in giros: frustrated men, vulnerable women and children, and a very thin margin between stability and crisis. Developing nations are rich in melodrama, if one chooses to see them that way. In most of Mexico, for example, it’s all but impossible for women to get legal abortions, which makes for countless instructive story lines involving unwanted pregnancies, hasty marriages, and adultery.

As Bill said, “No one wants to go home and listen to an AIDS soap opera.” That’s why for each country PMC works in, they do formative research with the target audience to find out what their key issues are. When they are working with the country’s Ministry of Health or other governmental agency, they make sure that all the values in the program are in synch with that government’s policies (i.e., related to AIDS prevention or family planning). They then create a “values grid” that leads to the definition of the characters. They figure out what types of values statements a character might make (e.g., “There’s no point in using contraception because it’s up to God to decide how many children I should have.” Or “Taking care of my family is the most important thing to me.”). They put together the characters with their values sets, and figure out how the characters will relate to each other. Only then do they determine the program’s plot. This process is quite intensive, and it takes them about 3 weeks to train writers in the Sabido method.

So far, the Sabido method has only been used to develop programs outside of the United States (Read this article for more on PMC’s successes in applying this method in other countries.). In these countries, there are often only one or two local television or radio stations, and so it is possible to reach a critical mass of people with the program and create social change on a large scale.

The U.S. poses a challenge because of its complex and fragmented media market — there are not a lot of shared media experiences anymore like “Roots” or “Who shot J.R.?” though “American Idol” might come close. On the upside, this fragmented market means that it is possible to reach specific niches and demographics in different ways.

Although American soap operas generally only run during the daytime and may be around for decades, the telenovelas popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world (and running with much success on American Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo) are broadcast during prime time and are of time-limited duration. A new American telenovela developed by an actress with a master’s in public health, “Nuestro Barrio” (“Our Neighborhood”), just finished its first season, running on cable stations in North Carolina. The series is geared toward new Spanish-speaking immigrants, and weaves in educational themes like fair housing and financial issues along with the more traditional plots of love and betrayal. While it does not appear that the creators are specifically following the Sabido method, the concepts they are using seem to be similar.

And why not work with existing American (and other countries’) soap operas? They certainly already have the audience’s emotional involvement with the characters who may be old friends going back 20 years or more. In fact, this approach has been used with great success, and PCI has sponsored “Soap Summits” that bring together writers and producers of the soaps and public health experts.

A survey done in 1999 (admittedly a while ago, but probably not that much different for today’s soap viewers) found that among regular viewers, i.e. viewers who watch soap operas at least twice a week:

  • Almost half (48%) report they learned something about diseases and how to prevent them from daytime drama storylines
  • More than one-third (34%) took some action as a result
  • Have more health concerns, and express more negative beliefs and behaviors about prevention practices than non-viewers
  • Women and blacks, who are among the groups with largest representation of regular viewers, report the highest rates of learning and action as a result of daytime drama viewing.
  • Seek out health information more than non-viewers, but have more difficulty understanding the information they read

I think the next frontier of soap operas for social marketing will be online. You can very specifically target people with the characteristics you are trying to reach. You can create different messages for different types of people. Your audience can watch the episodes at their convenience, become part of a community of fans who discuss the show, perhaps even interact with the show to see how the characters’ decisions change what happens in their lives. With the rise of free on-demand video sharing sites like YouTube and Google Video, it is quite easy to make this type of program available once it has been produced. If you do a good job with it, people will share it with their friends and come back for each new episode. There is already a long list of episodic online series, though none seem to be venues for social marketing (a few are audio/video, but the rest are text- or comic-based).

I was able to find out about one relevant online series. Incendia Health Studios has created an animated dramatic serial about HIV called Live With It. So far two “webisodes” have been posted that introduce the characters, and it will be interesting to see where they go with it over time. A review of the series describes it as follows:

Live with It debuted in the fall of 2005 and follows a cast of fictional characters living with HIV/AIDS. Told in three to five minute episodic broadband videos, the unfolding serial drama follows the characters, who were inspired by real-life stories culled from blogs, online communities and other resources, as they cope with their diagnoses, confront their emotions and struggle with personal relationships. It also provides a powerful emotional experience– one that sufferers can relate to. To attract visitors and to encourage compliance, Live With It offers HIV sufferers not only medical advice and treatment options, but also a sense of community and shared experience as well.

The series is also available via downloaded podcasts, and they have developed MySpace profiles for the characters as well.

The potential for what could be done with online serial dramas based on Sabido’s methodology is vast. I think we will start seeing more of this type of programming soon. Who’s with me on this?

Additional Resources:

  • Soap Operas for Social Change to Prevent HIV/AIDS: A Training Guide for Journalists and Media Personnel from the Population Media Center (PMC) – Download pdf here
  • Book: Soap Operas for Social Change: Toward a Methodology for Entertainment-Education Television by Heidi Noel Nariman – Information from the publisher here

UPDATE: Bill Ryerson provided some minor clarifications, which I incorporated above, and offered a couple of additional resources:

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