I recall sitting in the main hut of my rural Kenyan abode, gathered around with the family, candlelight enjoying the absence of electricity in the area, battling only the beam from our car-battery powered TV. Night after night, the family would huddle around the TV to watch the evening news, followed by the Bold and the Beautiful. Aside from delving into a part of my culture that I otherwise had no prior exposure to, it provided me an unforeseen peek into the impact of media on public perception. The perceived accuracy of American culture portrayed on the screen far exceeded reality.  Despite my protests, I could not convince those around me that neither my friends nor I drove Bentleys, lived in mansions or suffered from chronic coma or amnesia. 

As a little ferreting through some journals would prove, this is not isolated to cultural perceptions and simple storylines tied into popular media can have significant impacts on public perception of health-related issues. This becomes particularly significant when one considers the benefits (and drawbacks) that can stem from this. 

In Botswana, a plot involving an HIV+ man in the Bold and the Beautiful was shown to significantly lower stigma to HIV (O’Leary et al. 2007). Similarly, radio shows there have been shown effective in increasing HIV testing during pregnancy (based on a character), HIV testing and talking about testing, reduced stigma and increased knowledge of prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV (Pappas-DeLuce et al. 2oo8 and Kuhlmann et al.  2008)

Studies in Nepal and Brazil showed that watching MTV was associated with more positive perceptions of HIV (Geary et al. 2006). (I guess mama was wrong when she told me MTV would rot my brain.) 

Australia has developed the Jailbreak Health Project which delivers “subtle” health messages to prisoners during weekly radio shows (Minc et al. 2007).

For a less doe-eyed example, check out the abstract for this article entitled, “Making monsters: heterosexuality, crime and race in recent Western media coverage of HIV”. Not entertainment-education per se, but food for thought nonetheless regarding the potential negative impact of media.

It goes both ways.

The next question is, “How do we effectively leverage popular media to promote positive health messages?”


Side note: For an array of fascinating snapshots on development issues and innovative communications solutions check out The Communication Initiative Network.