Soap Operas with Civic Messages

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Poor people in the developing world and elsewhere have high infant mortality rates and deaths from diseases that are preventable or readily treatable (as well as a host of social ills, such as wife beating). Moreover , lack of information coupled with inflexible or outmoded social traditions and superstition can perpetuate cycles of needless suffering for people of all economic sectors. Unfortunately the need for accurate health information is often addressed by ineffective public service announcements that seem preachy or uninteresting or otherwise fail to reach the entire “audience” or particular nexus of people who must be involved in important decisions.


People all over the world face important life decisions with inadequate information that is often accompanied with overwhelming social pressure to behave in certain ways. Policy makers, media producers and community activists are faced with the challenge of presenting that information to the people who need it, in a form that is accessible and acceptable.


The concept of Soap Operas for Social Change, developed by Mexican television producer Miguel Sabido, deftly weaves health and other socially responsible information into “traditional” soap operas to raise consciousness without compromising the compelling everyday drama that the genre exemplifies. Although this type of soap opera (called Telenovelas in Latin America) is not in the majority, there are examples of its use throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

In 1967, the Peruvian telenovela “Simplemente Maria” that chronicles twenty years in the life of a maid working through the travails of the day as a single mother preparing for a career as a fashion designer was launched. It was this show apparently that opened up the possibility of social messages intertwined with popular culture. According to Hanna Rosin whose New Yorker article, “Life Lessons” helped inform this pattern, “Peru’s working-class women identified deeply with Maria; they saw her story less as a Cinderella fantasy then as a future that was possible for them, too. Thousands of maids wrote to the station to say that they were going back to school.”

The hero or heroine of a "Sabido soap" is a “transitional” character in the drama, a "fallible character who struggles to behave decently" (Rosin, 2006). In fact, the most important aspect of the telenovela is the barrage of giros (twists of fate), trials and tribulations, that continually tests the protagonist’s perseverance. In China, the program “Bai Xing,” or “Ordinary People” in English, features Luye, an unmarried rural Chinese girl who has a baby and moves to the city. This perfectly “ordinary” story is filled with the the real-life drama that people routinely face but is rarely portrayed. In recent episodes Luye discovers that two of her acquaintances have AIDS, a subject that is generally not found on Chinese television.

The non-governmental organizations Population Communications International and Population Media Center has been involved in socially responsible soap operas for many years. The focus is on usually related to population issues although this frequently involves health, sustainable development and environmental issues as well. Both are involved in the development of television and radio shows as well as work in other media, media leadership issues, and communication strategy and theory as well. The PMC web site explains that, "The advantage of using long-running, entertainment serial dramas include their huge audience appeal and the emotional bonds that are formed between the audience members and characters, which can lead to strongly positive influences of the characters on attitudes and behaviors by audience members." Sabido has developed a methodology that was informed by the integration of several key communication theories.

Ideally the social messages in the soap operas and telenovelas are presented in the form of choices that can be consciously made – not injunctions or instructions which must be obeyed. The best of these soap operas are probably more like this although the protagonist ultimately will make a choice and that choice is likely to be the one favored by the producers of the program. For many reasons, everybody who is involved in formulating a response to a given situation would be party to the dilemma played out on the television screen and weigh all the relevant factors individually and collectively. In Nepal, for example, the mother-in-law and husband are key players in decisions involving childbirth and must therefore be part of any approach to offer new choices for life decisions. Because soap operas in developing countries are shown in prime time (rather than during the day as, for example, in the U.S.) and are, therefore, seen by people across the spectrum of the population and because a high percentage of the viewers, are illiterate or are otherwise unable to gain access to relevant information, Socially Responsible Soap Operas make ideal vehicles for the propagation of useful information on such topics as family planning, domestic violence, nutrition, home management and emergency preparedness.

Socially Responsible Soap Operas are clearly subject to challenges from many sources. In Burma, for example, the radio show “Thaby e gone Ywa” (Eugenia Tree Village) was broadcast illegally over shortwave radio because Burma’s military dictatorship declared the program illegal. In the examples discussed above the creators of the programs are aware of the dangers of using the media for propaganda. As William Ryerson, president of PMC, explains, "Unlike brainwashing, PMC’s approach is to show a range of options—to broaden rather than to narrow the perspective of the viewing audience with regard to the choices available to them. For each of the options, the programs show realistic consequences."

On the other hand, the desire to fiddle with the content of popular shows could prove irresistible to overzealous governments that were intent in spreading their messages. Put in this context the practice of inserting message into soaps seems positively Orwellian. Yet commercial message are increasingly commonplace and “product placements” in Hollywood films, television shows, and, even books, while the society at least seems unfazed. Recently in the U.S. a spot in a book for teenager girls was sold to the highest bidder, a glossy lips makeup manufacturer. Also, of course, subtle and not-so-subtle messages thoroughly permeate much of the mass media, some of which is explicitly designed (for “mass appeal,” government appeasement, or as an expression of personal ideology) while others are unconsciously added to the mix, the atmosphere of commercialization is seemingly too ubiquitous to be resisted.

Although many of the people who are likely to get involved in this pattern are policy-makers or media producers, other people can help promote this idea by entering into a dialogue with people who are better positioned to make changes. Although strong challenges exist, this pattern has rich potential as a tool for positive social change.


Information about family planning and other important life decisions can be integrated into soap operas in ways that strengthen the dramatic impact of the show while leading to beneficial social effects at the same time.

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