Could Soap Operas Help Stop AIDS?

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Could soap operas "save the world"? It sounds like a contrarian "click me" headline, but Boston Globe writer Drake Bennett makes a strong case, discussing soaps' transformative powers, particularly in developing countries. These powers, he argues, can be used for good.

A team of economists credits Brazilian TV "novelas" for helping to dramatically lower a fertility rate that in 1960 was above six births per woman. Others have found that in India--where soaps dominate the airwaves--villages where people watch more TV give more responsibilities and rights to women and girls. Researchers in Rwanda have found that radio soap operas there can help defuse the country’s dangerous ethnic tensions. Turkish soap operas have set off a public debate about women's roles in the Middle East. And research in the United States has found that health tips tucked into soaps have greater sticking power than with just about any other mode of transmission.

Spurred on by these findings, "researchers and public health and international aid organizations are looking at how to design soaps that might more effectively spread information and change attitudes about everything from tribal tensions to HIV to petty corruption." Could soaps halt the spread of AIDS in Africa or discourage tropical deforestation? Could they contribute to the debate on the burqa? Of course, at some point the didactic value might run up against the salacious appeal. As Bennett says, "It remains to be seen how healthy soap operas can be made before they lose their hold on viewers ... Even when soaps are doing good, they need to feel a little bad."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.