Fighting Poverty and HIV With Soap Operas

Lupita Nyongo in season one of Shuga.

Source: YouTube

Before she won an Academy Award in 2014 for her role in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o starred in two seasons of the TV drama Shuga. Set first in Nairobi and then in Lagos, Shuga features young, attractive people who sleep with each other. It’s wildly popular and shown on broadcast channels that reach 500 million people, mostly in Africa.

“I would say that it’s an African version of Gossip Girl, but with sexual-health messages weaved through,” says Georgia Arnold, executive director of MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, which produces the show with the twin goals of promoting safer sex and removing the taboo around HIV. Shuga isn’t a commercial project; it’s sponsored by donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now in its fourth season, the show recently added a new member to its production team: Eliana La Ferrara, a professor at the University of Bocconi in Italy who specializes in a mix of behavioral and development economics. La Ferrara wasn’t hired for her writing talent. MTV and its donors want to apply a more rigorous approach to make sure Shuga’s message actually creates change where it airs.

Governments have long known that TV can have an impact on poverty by changing behavior. In the 1970s, after the launch in Peru of Simplemente María, a telenovela about an aspirational maid, the country’s government noticed a rise in demand for literacy classes.

Peru: After Simplemente María aired, from 1969-71, enrollment in adult literacy classes increased, and households started treating their maids better.
Courtesy: YouTube

More recently, economists have tried to measure these effects with greater precision. In 2009, Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, found that the arrival of cable television in rural India had decreased the acceptability of domestic violence against women and led to a drop in fertility rates. At about the same time, La Ferrara began working on a paper that uncovered a similar effect in Brazil, where birthrates had declined in households within the signal range of Rede Globo, a Brazilian broadcaster specializing in telenovelas.

The phenomenon of people changing their behavior as they identify with characters became known as the telenovela effect. It’s seen not just in the developing world. In 2014 the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper suggesting the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant had led to a 5.7 percent reduction in births among teenage mothers during the 18 months after it premiered. In the U.S., TV has been on the leading edge of evolving social trends at least since The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude.

Brazil: Rede Globo, a broadcaster specializing in telenovelas, expanded rapidly in the 1980s. Characters on its shows had few or no children; viewers began to have fewer babies.
Globo Comnunications

The news isn’t universally good: A paper by Benjamin Olken of MIT showed that social ties in Indonesia weakened with the arrival of TV. The challenge, La Ferrara says, is to take a passive effect and turn it into an active policy. “Now that we know what happened, we can leverage the good side.”

With Shuga, La Ferrara applies the rigorous standards of economic research to the development of the show. She pulls existing data on attitudes to get a baseline before programming starts and suggests themes for the writers to consider. When the show’s third season was ready to air in 2014, La Ferrara screened it for community groups. This spring, those groups will respond to a survey measuring what behaviors actually changed. Such data-driven decisions are increasingly important for donors, in particular the Gates Foundation.

Last season, while studying a Nigerian survey on attitudes about HIV, La Ferrara found that only 47 percent of women and 61 percent of men had heard of antiretroviral drugs, which can prevent the onset of AIDS. A plot line on the show then featured a woman who discovered the drugs in her lover’s dresser and asked her friends what they were. TV producers can’t always share an economist’s rigor. La Ferrara suggested that MTV produce several plot lines on domestic violence to see which was most effective, but the network decided not to shoot multiple versions of the same scene.

South Africa: The World Bank researcher who worked with South African soap opera Scandal! on a story line about debt says an emotional connection to the character is important for changing behavior.
Courtesy: YouTube

In 2013, Bilal Zia, an economist with the World Bank, published the results of a randomized field trial around Scandal!, a soap opera on South Africa’s E.TV. He worked with the show’s writers on a plot line about personal finance. At first, “we were worlds apart,” he says. “They wanted something with a lot of spice, and we wanted a lot of messaging. They said if you put on a show with a lot of information, no one’s going to watch.” Eventually the writers agreed to do a plot about a woman who buys furniture on an expensive installment plan, gambles, and then calls a government debt hotline for help. Zia found in field studies that people who watched were less likely to buy on installment or gamble.

The World Bank is beginning to think about behaviors in the developing world, in addition to its traditional focus on infrastructure and the workforce. The bank’s 2015 World Development Report includes a section on the work of La Ferrara, Oster, and Zia. Karla Hoff, the report’s author, says the bank is intrigued by the telenovela effect, but more research is needed before it becomes a regular part of funding decisions.

Nigeria: In Shuga, a series filmed in Kenya and Nigeria, young people go out, sleep with each other, and learn tough lessons about HIV. The series is a nonprofit project of MTV's Staying Alive Foundation.
Courtesy: YouTube

One early conclusion, La Ferrara says, is that it’s easier to provide information than to change behavior. That is, it’s more likely that a TV show will encourage someone to call a debt hotline than to refrain from hitting his wife. “It’s ambitious to think that with a soap opera you can change these very deeply rooted values,” La Ferrara says. On Shuga, at least, medium and message work particularly well together. “It’s young people, a social network, and how they’re linked by sex,” says Arnold of the Staying Alive Foundation. “That’s a pretty easy brief in terms of entertainment.”

The bottom line: Producers find that TV can have an impact on poverty and public health, changing social behaviors.

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