My friend, Seth, who has been doing development work in Central Asia was adamant: “Soap operas are the key”. I was surprised. Seth isn’t the kind of guy you expect to hear talking about soap operas, but he is fired up. In multiple countries, he said, people have found that weaving desired themes and behaviors into TV soap opera plots affects what viewers talk about and, more importantly, what they do/don’t do. There is even a company that specializes in helping organizations around the world create TV series that effectively incorporate societally desirable attitude or behavior changes. (See Population Media)
This conversation came back to me yesterday when I heard the startling results of a study on why teenage birthrates in the US have dropped so much over the last 5 years. The finding? 30% of that drop is directly attributable to the MTV reality show: “Sixteen and Pregnant”. Apparently, when girls see the struggles of the real teen mothers they run for their contraceptives or avoid sex. ( Is ’16 And Pregnant’ An Effective Form Of Birth Control? : NPR) (Wellesley Infographic summarizing the findings)
So, apparently we can change the world for the better through the right TV show content. Knowing this, what would you change?
Here is the opportunity I would pick:
Why not change how people perceive the poor? Using the right plot lines and characters, why not show that those “invisible” people who don’t have the money that others use to seem interesting, attractive and powerful, are often extraordinary? And that they often live out untold stories of continually tested and proven combinations of strength, integrity, humility, perseverance, ingenuity, patience, self-sacrifice, generosity, hard work and optimism?
It is time to put a new face on poverty. Too often when people think about the poor they think of dysfunction and hopelessness. Let’s recognize the face of poverty that is alive with potential and capability. By focusing on the positive capacity of low-income people the whole country wins in two ways:
- It can motivate new participation, investment and innovation by those with resources.
- Among the poor, that same focus can fuel self-respect, increased self-agency and the motivation to use all the resources available to them.
Poor people, and low-income mothers in particular, are a gold mine of inspiration and capability. Let’s use TV and every medium to tap into that for the benefit of everyone.