After seeing the Academy Award-winning movie The Big Short, I completely agree with the praise the film received at the Oscars for distilling complicated economic concepts into terms that regular folks like you and I can understand. The Big Short is just one example of how entertainment media can be successful in educating people—not despite the fact it's entertaining but rather because it's entertaining.
Entertainment education is a communication strategy in which theories of communication, education, psychology, and drama are used to create an education and behavior change message for addressing social issues. That message is then woven into an appealing and persuasive media format to reach a specific media audience.
Entertainment education has been used in countries around the world to successfully increase understanding of and to change behavior related to myriad health issues including domestic violence, family planning, disease detection and prevention, and emergency preparedness, even a zombie apocalypse! One great example is Soul City in South Africa, an entertainment education television soap opera that has been running for more than 20 years. The soap has contributed to better understanding of and improvements in maternal and infant health, HIV prevention, and alcohol abuse among numerous other health issues.
There is no magic formula for creating successful entertainment education…but there are a few essential ingredients:
- Accurate information. For health-related topics in the U.S., the Entertainment Education Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers valuable topic-based tip sheets on everything from AIDS and alcohol use during pregnancy to West Nile Fever and women's health. Even Hollywood makes use of this resource: filmmakers and television showrunners including Shonda Rhimes at Grey's Anatomy regularly reach out to the CDC's Entertainment Education Program to get expert advice on how to accurately address various health issues.
- An engaging narrative. The idea that narratives, or stories, can help people learn is nothing new. In nearly every culture throughout human history, stories have been used to convey information of all sorts - morals, history, norms, you name it. When well-crafted, narratives can be particularly effective in educating people and persuading them to adopt change. Good stories get people emotionally and mentally involved within the action of the story; the more involved they are, the less likely they are to even realize that they're learning.
- Appealing characters that model prosocial behavior change. According to Bandura's social cognitive theory (a key theory in entertainment education), people are observational learners who can learn attitudes and behavior by modeling those of people they see around them, including characters seen through the media. The more people relate to and admire characters, the more likely they are to emulate the behavior of those characters. By watching characters actively work their way through behavior change - from exposure to a new behavior, through decision to adopt a behavior and overcoming obstacles, to full adoption and maintenance of a behavior - audience members are able to learn through observation both what to expect and strategies for succeeding.
- Solid understanding of the audience. Without a thorough knowledge of the audience being targeted, the rest doesn't really matter. Entertainment education interventions should be designed around a specific target audience and it's important to know as much as possible about that audience. Who are these people? What are their daily lives like? What obstacles will they face in changing their behavior? Are they even the right people to be targeting? Only by truly understanding an audience can public health practitioners help them improve their lives.
It should be obvious by now that effective entertainment education programs generally don't just…happen. So I'm adding one last crucial ingredient:
- Research, research, research. I'm a researcher, so I might be biased, but research can help with every step of the process of creating entertainment education content. Background research is essential for understanding the scope of the problem and identifying potential solutions and obstacles. Boning up on relevant theories like social cognitive theory - or reaching out to those already in the know, like professors at a local college - can make it easier to craft a compelling story and create effective characters. So, too, can reading about what's worked in other entertainment education campaigns. Finally, it's important to talk to the target audience and learn from their lived experiences.
Mixed together with a lot of hard work, time, and creativity, these ingredients can help anyone develop an effective entertainment education intervention. It might not necessarily get you to the Academy Awards, but the rewards can be even bigger—knowing that you helped someone out there to live a healthier life. I'd say that's better than an Oscar any day.