Popular Media and Social Change: Lessons from Peru, Mexico, and South Africa

By Singhal, Arvind | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Popular Media and Social Change: Lessons from Peru, Mexico, and South Africa


Singhal, Arvind, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


A FEW MONTHS AGO, AT an international communication conference in Nairobi, Kenya, a delegate asked me about the purpose of my studies in popular entertainment media. She was of the opinion that mindless and escapist media programming was, as she put it, "downright trash" unworthy of academic study. Mindless and escapist perhaps, but as I explained, entertainment media is also the most popular genre of mass media programming, cutting across geographic, national, and cultural boundaries; it can be thought provoking, entertaining, educational, and enlightening all at once. For the next couple of hours, we talked about popular entertainment media and the value they hold for stimulating public discourses on social issues at the local, national, or global level and especially on topics that are considered "taboo": sexuality, HIV/AIDS prevention, mental depression, ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination, and the like. Our talk was peppered with examples from all over the world and raised difficult questions: Can the commercial viability of popular global media be burdened by the weight of social responsibility? Or conversely, what additional value does the educational (social) content add to a popular entertainment genre, especially if there is seamless integration of entertainment and education? Where does entertainment begin and education stop?

Some examples especially illustrated my defense. In 1996, a colorful 21-inch by 27-inch poster-letter-manifesto with the signatures and thumbprints of 184 villagers of Lutsaan in India's Uttar Pradesh state was mailed to All India Radio in New Delhi, which was then broadcasting an entertainment-education soap opera called Tinka Tinka Sukh (Happiness lies in Small Things). Listeners in the village actively opposed the practice of dowry after the show's protagonist committed suicide, having been abused by her groom for an inadequate dowry. Lutsaan's poster-letter noted: "It is a curse that for the sake of dowry, innocent women are compelled to commit suicide. Worse still . . . women are murdered for not bringing dowry. The education we got from Tinka Tinka Sukh particularly on dowry is significant."1

The social impact of entertainment-education in Lustaan is not unique. In 2000 when Camilla, the protagonist on Lazos de Sangre (Blood Ties), a popular Brazilian telenovela, was diagnosed with leukemia, the Brazilian National Registry of Bone Marrow Donors reported that new donor registrations increased 450 percent: from about 20 a month to 900 a month.2 On 3 August 2001, when Tony was diagnosed with HIV on an episode of the popular soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, the number of calls to the Center for Disease Control's AIDS hotline within the hour increased 16 times over the previous hour.3 This storyline was seen in over 100 countries with an estimated audience of about 400 million people.

The above examples illustrate a rising trend in global media programming, commonly referred to as the entertainment-education (E-E, or edutainment) communication strategy. Entertainment-education is the process of purposely designing and implementing a media message to both entertain and educate, in order to increase audience members' knowledge about an issue, create favorable attitudes, shift social norms, and change the oven behavior of individuals and communities.4 Entertainment-education narratives generally consist of two types: long-running mass-media programs (such as Tinka Tinka Sukh in India) that are explicitly designed to promote particular health and development themes or programs (such as Lazos de Sangn and The Bold and the Beautiful) that include certain health themes in the context of a larger plot. The latter approach, commonly referred to as "social merchandizing," involves the conscious placement of a social message, often a health message, in a popular mediated narrative.5

The social merchandizing approach is increasingly gaining ground among media producers in Hollywood and in other countries.

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