Smart Soaps

By Binns, Corey | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Smart Soaps


Binns, Corey, Stanford Social Innovation Review


The Population Media Center mixes science with soap operas to protect public health by Corey Binns

IN JUNE 2002 ETHIOPIAN RADIOS began broadcasting "Yeken Kignit" ("Looking Over One's Daily Life"), a soap opera about a courageous heroine named Anguach and her handsome husband, Demlew. As the radio drama unfolds, Demlew's mother meddles in the happy couple's marriage by persuading a neighbor to seduce him. Demlew succumbs to the temptation and contracts HIV from the neighbor. Although terrified that she might also be HIV-positive, Anguach travels to her local clinic to be tested and finds out that she is negative. After loyally caring for Demlew until his death, Anguach eventually marries again and lives happily ever after.

In response to the program, more than 15,000 letters poured into the offices of the Population Media Center (PMC), the nonprofit organization responsible for producing "Yeken Kignit." One woman wrote: 'After listening to your radio program, I identified myself with Anguach and took the bold decision of asking my husband to consent for a medical checkup in a local hospital. He hesitated for some time, but at last we were both tested."

When PMC founder and president William Ryerson reads letters like this, he knows his audience is hearing his organization's social message loud and clear. Like many of the organization's serialized dramas, "Yeken Kignit" aimed to popularize small families, to elevate the status of women and girls, and to promote economic development. The PMC has developed similar radio and television serials to address domestic violence in the Philippines, female circumcision in Sudan, and youth pregnancy in Nigeria. To extend its reach, the Shelburne, Vt.-based organization has representatives in California and Oregon, as well as offices throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In two and a half years on the air, the trials of Anguach and her community inspired a wave of social change in Ediiopia, where the United Nations estimates that upwards of a million people are infected with HIV More than half of the country's population of 70 million reported listening to the serial dramas, found the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-based Birhan Research & Development Consultancy.

The research firm also discovered that, compared to nonlisteners, men who followed the escapades of Anguach and Demlew were four times more likely to get tested for HIV, and female listeners were three times more likely to get tested. Moreover, after the show aired, male viewers increased their support of girls' education and of women entering public office.

"There's an emotional link between the characters and the audience members, and that makes these programs so effective," says Ryerson, a veteran population control and reproductive health advocate who founded the PMC in 1998. "The emotional content allows audience members to recall lessons they've learned years later. If you bore an audience, you'll have much less retained information."

The Play's the Thing

Purely educational television and radio shows provide useful information and increase awareness about important issues. But research has shown that they are unlikely to change behaviors shaped by centuries of tradition. In contrast, the PMC's serialized dramas on women's rights and family planning rely on the science of behavior change to rope audiences in for years of emotion-drenched episodes.

Ryerson draws his ideas primarily from the work of Stanford University social psychologist Albert Bandura. With his social learning theory, Bandura showed that audience members pattern their actions after those of media role models. During the 1970s, writer-director-producer Miguel Sabido put Bandura's theories to work in a series of Mexican telenovelas that dealt with adult education and other social and health issues. After the show aired, phone calls requesting family planning information from the government's national population council rose from zero to 500 a month, and more than 560,000 women enrolled in family planning clinics. …

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