Using soap operas to save the planet

September 2, 2010 • Serial Dramas, PMC in the News

PMC featured on Mother Nature Network.

When it comes to the American soap opera, few people will tell you that they’re actually inspired by anything they see in the plotlines or characters. It’s more the ridiculous on-screen drama that sucks people in — offering themes or stories that drag on, episode after episode in classic cliffhanger fashion.

But what if you could weave in messages of sustainability, gender equality, or issues regarding HIV and AIDS to evoke social change? What if a soap opera really did inspire?

That’s the idea behind the Population Media Center’s “entertainment education” serial dramas for audiences in developing areas of the world. The nonprofit airs soap operas on both radio and television to teach listeners and viewers important lessons relating to everything from family planning to reproductive health to environmental stewardship.

“High entertainment value obviously attracts an audience, and if you’re just doing intellectual blah, blah, blah, people don’t remember it as well,” Bill Ryerson, president and founder of PMC, recently told AlterNet. “But when there is a highly emotional element, when you are emotionally involved in something, you remember it far longer.

“An emotional program with changes in the life fortune of characters that you are in love with is something that causes audience members to remember the rest of their lives the lessons they have learned from those characters. That is part of the reason why this approach is so effective.”

Reaching a large audience is also integral to any successful campaign, something PMC has done taking their soaps to more than 25 countries and more than 100 million listeners. And these “infotainment” messages appear to be working. In Ethiopia, 63 percent of new clients seeking reproductive health services at clinics reported that they were listening to one of PMC’s serial dramas. A PMC program in Nigeria was cited by 67 percent of family planning clients as the motivation for seeking services.

Ryerson’s next mission is to take PMC’s innovative approach and target American audiences — specifically Latinos and Hispanics. “We are going to address, among other things, the issues of teenage pregnancy prevention and obesity prevention among Latino populations, and it’s based on research we commissioned a couple of years ago in the Los Angeles area.”

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