Tell Me a Story: A Novel and Effective Way to Promote Behavior Change

Feb 03

One of the first rules for those of us in the creative writing business is show, don’t tell. In other words, don’t tell me that the 12-year-old in your story who’s heading off to her first day at a new school is scared or nervous. Show me how she feels by making me feel it too–the rush of heat that comes to her face when she shows up in the wrong homeroom and has to get up, in front of 30 laughing strangers, and make her way back to the door. The feeling of invisibility as she stands next to the beautiful cheerleader at the adjoining locker. The absolute certainty that her lunch tray is going to slip from her shaking hands as she approaches a table in the cafeteria where all of the popular kids are sitting.

While this approach is the essence of great storytelling, it’s also a valuable tool in social marketing–one that enables you to illustrate the behavioral changes you’re striving to create as opposed to simply telling people what they should do. A little over a decade ago I worked on a team that had the opportunity to do just that in the development of a public education campaign to address the problem of bullying, particularly among “tweens” between the ages of nine and 13. The stakes for success were significant. There had been numerous high profile incidents of school violence that stemmed from bullying the year before we developed the campaign, and there was a growing certainty among experts that the problem had reached crisis proportions.

The key challenges in developing the campaign were the complexity of the messaging and the myriad goals of our client–the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS wanted to convince kids not to bully other kids . . . while convincing “bystanders” to step in and use positive peer pressure to get bullies to change their behaviors . . . while ultimately supporting the creation of school-wide cultures where bullying went from being a “rite of passage” to something that would not be condoned.

Obviously a series of Public Service Announcements wasn’t going to accomplish all of this. We had to find a way to directly engage kids on an emotional level to convince them to change their attitudes and the way they behaved toward each other. Our solution was inspired by the use of “novellas” and serial dramas, which have been a key component in social marketing efforts in Spanish-speaking and developing nations for the past four decades and more recently in U.S. efforts as well.

Created in print, radio, television and Web formats, serial dramas utilize suspenseful stories with interesting characters to capture the attention of target audiences and demonstrate the types of behaviors that will solve problems and improve lives. They’ve succeeded in bringing about significant shifts in behavior toward family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, the education of girls, ending the abuse of women, and even the conservation of natural resources.

As described in this January 28 New York Times story about the use of soap operas to promote behavior change in developing countries, “Successful soaps tend to be smartly written, sexy and replete with plot twists and love triangles. In the best-case scenario, the show becomes popular, and viewers begin to incorporate some of the themes into their lives.” The story goes on to report that “some, though not all, have also been successful commercially and have resulted in documented changes in behavior. The long-running South African television series ‘Soul City’ has 12 million viewers and is as familiar as Coca-Cola to black South Africans. Regular viewers are almost four times as likely to use condoms than others. In Saint Lucia, the radio drama ‘Apwé Plézi’ (‘After the Pleasure’) became so popular that producers had to set up a separate helpline for people requesting information on family planning. Brazilian women with exposure to soap operas, which usually portray small families, have been found to have significantly lower fertility than others.”

While novellas have been used by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to encourage people to take short term actions (such as getting vaccinated for the flu) the format is particularly well-suited to communications efforts that are multidimensional and that aim to bring about long term change in a society. As noted by William N. Ryerson, President of the Population Media Center, which has incorporated serial dramas in numerous education efforts, the programs capture the attention of target audiences with compelling storylines and characters and “allow time for the audience to form bonds with the characters and evolve their own thinking at a gradual pace in response to problems that have been well illustrated in a storyline.”

Ryerson  also notes, and supports with ample evidence in this paper that “the emotional context of a melodrama improves retention of lessons learned by the audience, in much the same way that we remember the details of where we were on September 11, 2001 much more clearly than on an ordinary day.”

Our creative team (which included people who wrote fiction in our time out of the office) had a lot of fun developing our serial drama to address bullying. Knowing that our “tweens” spend about 120 percent of their lives online, we chose “webisodes” as the platform.  Based on research, we knew middle schoolers liked animation, so we used personified animals as characters in the story. “KB,” the sweet, shy girl who was bullied in her new school, was a puppy, and “Cassandra,” her chief “mean girl” tormentor, was a cat. Thrown into the mix were a popular science teacher – characterized as a stork – who intervened when he saw the bullies in action, and two cool kids – a bunny and a monkey–who likewise intervened as peer bystanders and helped save the day.

Stop Bullying Now Webisodes screenshot

A decade later, HHS still promotes these webisodes as a public engagement tool.  To learn more about the Population Media Center’s success in using serial dramas to change behaviors related to family planning and the treatment of women, literacy and other topics, visit their website.  Get a glimpse of some excellent work being done by HMA Associates, a cultural communications firm and frequent Ogilvy Washington partner on their website.

Do you know of a public education or social marketing effort that could benefit from this novel approach to changing behavior? If so, feel free to join the discussion.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 3rd, 2012 at 1:17 am and is filed under Behavior Change, Ogilvy Washington, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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