Family Planning Media: That’s Entertainment!

Soap operas, songs, and music videos are spreading the word about family planning around the globe, and changing lives in the process

One of the articles in Birth, Sex & Death (IC#31)
Originally published in Spring 1992 on page 42
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

A Mexican couple laughs at the absurd depiction of pregnant men in a popular television sitcom. Young people in a Nigerian village dance to the hit song "Choices" by King Sunny Ade. And a Turkish man identifies with the farmer, in a TV spot, who must divide his paltry inheritance among seven sons. Despite cultural differences, these individuals are sharing a common experience and a uniform vision. They are enjoying popular entertainment that teaches the value of family planning.

Although pop media may seem an odd venue for teaching family planning, the practice is based on solid learning theory. To learn new social behaviors, individuals need exposure to new attitudes and behaviors over an extended period of time. Today, the developing world boasts one television set for every twelve people and many more radios. The mass media can expose large numbers of people to positive role models. And through repetition, soap operas, TV spots, and music videos help to reinforce attitudinal change.

Popular educators stumbled upon the use of soap operas for social change by accident. In 1969, a soap opera called Simplemente Maria aired on Peruvian television. This "telenovela" profiled the life of a hard-working young woman, who prospered after learning to sew and starting her own business. The series caused a dramatic increase in the sale of Singer sewing machines, as Peruvian women imitated Maria and took up sewing.

The lesson – that entertainment educates – inspired producer Miguel Sabido, vice-president of Mexico’s television network, Televisa. In 1974 Sabido began devising ideas for telenovelas with educational themes. His first serial drama, Ven Conmigo ("Come With Me") addressed the issue of adult education and is credited with helping motivate nearly a million people to sign up for adult literacy classes in Mexico.

Sabido followed in 1977 with his first family planning theme in a series entitled Acompáñame ("Come Along With Me"). According to the National Family Planning Program, a half million Mexicans visited family planning clinics while the program was running – a 32% increase over the previous year that was attributed, in part, to Acompáñame. Sabido is currently producing Sangre Joven, a new serial about family planning and AIDS which targets young people in Latin America and Spanish-speaking youth in the United States.

Over the past fifteen years, Sabido and his colleagues at The Institute for Communication Studies, Televisa’s non-profit arm, have developed an elaborate communications theory based upon social psychology and their own experience making television. It holds that programs must, above all, present human relationships and values that are in strict keeping with their audience’s world view. In addition, the social, economic and cultural conditions in these dramas must reflect, to the last detail, the social realities of peoples’ lives, so that viewers will think "there’s someone just like me doing that."

But identifying with lead characters marks only the first step in the process. The real goal is to persuade viewers to change their behavior. The key, Sabido reported to the Boston Globe, lies in creating the "doubter" character – a stock figure in classic melodrama – who questions the proposed new behavior and gives the viewer an outlet for his own doubts and skepticism. As the doubter gradually comes to choose the "right" course of action, it is hoped the viewer, too, will be converted to the desired behavior.

After consultation with producer Sabido, India produced its own soap opera, Hum Log in 1987. The series, which reached an audience of 80 million, promoted smaller families and equal status for women. At present, a new series called Humraahi will focus on the rights of women to equal education and employment, to choose their own marriage partners, and to determine whether and when to have children. Similarly, Kenya produced Tushauriane ("Let’s Discuss It"), a wildly popular television soap, in 1987 and Ushikwapo, a radio serial scheduled for rebroadcast this year.


In other parts of the world, performers are spreading the message of sexual responsibility to young people through the medium of music and music video. In countries ranging from Mexico to the Philippines, from Indonesia to Nigeria, pop stars are lending their celebrity to the cause. In 1988, Filipina musician Lea Salonga and the internationally known group Menudo collaborated and recorded "The Situation," which became a hit song in Manila. It warned that "Love can wait; don’t fall too hard, or you’ll get caught in ‘That Situation’." The song and music video were part of a larger campaign that included TV spots, essay and art contests for young people and a television hotline.

In Nigeria, performers – King Sunny Ade and Onyeka – released two family planning songs on Ade’s 1989 album Wait for Me, with music videos to accompany them. The songs ask fellow Nigerians to choose the best time to have their children and to have only as many as they can adequately provide for. The musicians launched the songs with a press conference, followed by a high visibility tour of hospitals and clinics. Although the impact of the songs on Nigeria’s birth rate has yet to be evaluated, preliminary interviews indicate that 57% of the 1,500 city people and 22% of rural ones had seen or heard the songs and more than 90% agreed with their messages.

Probably the most versatile of mass media formats remains the television spot. Media campaigns using multiple spots have been used successfully in Brazil to promote vasectomies, and in countries including the Dominican Republic, Turkey and Egypt to introduce modern contraceptive methods. One Egyptian scenario reads like this:

WIFE: You know, Mother wants us to have another baby.

HUSBAND: Look, Mother-in-Law, don’t we thin out our cotton plants and leave adequate space between them so they can grow strong and healthy?

MOTHER-IN-LAW (Sarcastically): So where did you learn these smart things, Son-in-Law?

HUSBAND: From you, Mother-in-Law!

This mother-in-law became a familiar character to Egyptian audiences. Played by a famous actress, her humorous messages appeared up to five times a day, correcting misinformation and encouraging couples to seek family planning information.

Despite the successes, selling social messages through the mass media remains a tricky business. India’s first family planning serial floundered in its early episodes because it tried to hard-sell its message. And Mexican adolescents discounted the song "Frena" ("Stop!") because its message – "just say no" – was crooned by a male singer and traditionally, it is a woman’s prerogative to say "no." Others have criticized programs for not targeting men, who often have the final say on birth control. Scientific evaluation of social change media projects remains troublesome because of the difficulty measuring how much change occurred as a result of the media message and how much would have occurred anyway.

Nevertheless, popular entertainment can be a powerful force for social change. In responsible hands, it empowers people to choose a brighter future for themselves – and for the planet. s

For more information on this topic, contact Population Communications International, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017-3521, 212/687-3366; or the Population Information Program, The Johns Hopkins University, 527 St. Paul Place, Baltimore, MD 21202, 301/659-6300.

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