Message placement: Gates Foundation discovers TV soaps are good for health!

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...

In the developing (or majority) world, we have been doing it for years: embedding subtle messages on health, environment, family planning or civic behaviour in popular, highly-rated entertainment shows on television.

In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is a long history of collaboration among non-formal educators, advocacy groups and broadcast companies to mix entertainment with public education — a difficult balance to achieve without putting off viewers who tune in for entertainment. See, for example, my coverage of the BBC World Service Trust’s work in India.

Now, it seems, this ‘edu-tainment‘ approach is also being tried out seriously in the home of ‘soap operas’ or television drama: the United States.

A recent report in the New York Times describes how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with video production companies and broadcast networks to shape story lines and insert health-related messages into popular entertainment like the television shows “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Private Practice.”

Already, the foundation’s messages on HIV prevention, surgical safety and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.

The report, written by Tim Arango and Brian Stelter, said: “Now the Gates Foundation is set to expand its involvement and spend more money on influencing popular culture through a deal with Viacom, the parent company of MTV and its sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon and BET.”

They called it “message placement”: the social or philanthropic corollary to product placement deals in which marketers pay to feature products in shows and movies. Instead of selling Coca-Cola or G.M. cars, they promote education and healthy living.

Some viewers in television-saturated US might say: it’s about time! In the past, many American companies producing entertainment content have resisted approaches from social activists to use the mass medium for public good.

In the late 1980s, when I shared some Asian experiences of mixing television drama and public education at an international science communication conference in Spain, American academics and journalists in the audience were intrigued. “But this can never happen in the United States…we keep our education and entertainment separate, and with good reason!” one of them said during question time.

Clearly, those hard attitudes have been changing slowly. As the NYT article says: “The efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new…. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health issues, has been doing such work for a dozen years. It has worked story lines about H.I.V. and AIDS into programs on CBS and UPN (now known as the CWnetwork), including the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication is at the forefront of blending entertainment with public education. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, ‘I’m going to be an organ donor,’ it’s effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Centre.

The Centre has a Hollywood, Health & Society programme that provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for health storylines. It organises meetings between health specialists and script writers for entertainment shows – not just drama, but also reality and variety shows.

“Our view is you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate,” Kaplan is quoted as saying in the NYT article.

That’s a view – and experience – shared by TV writers, producers and programme managers from Mexico to South Africa, and from India to the Philippines. In fact, this is an approach the Gates Foundation should consider rolling out in the majority world countries where they are already a key player in selected areas of health and development. Despite the recent spread of broadband internet, broadcast television is still the dominant mass medium – and primary source of news and entertainment – for most people in much of the developing world. That’s billions of eyeballs we’re talking about – and the cost of producing quality entertainment (even with education subtly embedded in some places) is significantly less than in the west.

In short, Gates can get a bigger bang for its bucks on the airwaves in the global South. And there’s really no need to convince TV industry gate-keepers and producers on how edu-tainment works: they’ve been at it for years, using whatever resources they can find.

Read full article: Messages With a Mission, Embedded in TV Shows, NYT 2 April 2009

Bill Gates and mosquitoes: World’s top geek now works for its meek

More bugs from Gates...

More bugs from Gates...

Bill Gates can’t seem to get enough of bugs.

On 4 February 2009, he let loose a swarm of mosquitoes at the TED 2009 technology, entertainment and design conference in California to highlight the dangers of malaria.

“Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” he reminded his audience of leading scientists, designers, researchers and entrepreneurs. Turning to an upturned jar on stage, he announced: “I brought some. Here…I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

Luckily, the mosquitoes were not carrying the disease. But it had the intended effect. Wired editor Chris Anderson, curator of the show, suggested a headline: “Gates releases more bugs into the world”.

Watch Bill Gates’s mosquito moment:

Watch the full 20-minute video of Bill Gates at TED 2009

As stunts go, this one was pretty mild and harmless. There are many shocking ways in which the harsh daily realities of the world’s poor can be brought into gatherings of the rich and famous. They could be served glasses of the contaminated, sludgy (and often smelly) water that tens of millions drink everyday. Or all the toilets could be locked up and the keys thrown away – for good. Or electricity supply could be cut off, or frequent ‘black-outs’ or ‘brown-outs’ could be staged. You get the idea…

Of course, few event organisers would dare try any of these, if only for health and safety considerations. Reminds me of a rare exception: when he was director of information with the UN’s population agency (UNFPA), journalist-turned-UN official Tarzie Vittachi once hosted delegates of a high level meeting to lunch which consisted soley of a bread roll and a glass water. He told his guests: the meal was better more than what most poor people in the global South on any given day.

Bill to the rescue...

Bill to the rescue...

Meanwhile, billions of poor and needy – and not just those in the majority world – are glad that Bill Gates caught the ‘development bug’ and has switched his formidable creative energies (not to mention his billions) to address their survival issues. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which carefully manages the giving away of Gates wealth – operates on the belief that all lives have equal value. “We think all people deserve the chance to have healthy, productive lives”.

They have set priorities such as improving health and reducing extreme poverty in the developing world, and improving high school education in the United States.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently described it as a paradox: “In these brutal economic times, one of the leading advocates for the world’s poorest people is one of the richest.”

He noted: “Mr. Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”

In his TED talk, Bill Gates addressed two questions that occupy much of his time these days: How do we stop Malaria? How do you make a teacher great?

Look, no computers!

Look, no computers!

He said: “The market does not drive scientists, thinkers, or governments to do the right things. Only by paying attention and making people care can we make as much progress as we need to.”

He called for greater distribution of insect nets and other protective gear, and revealed that an anti-malaria vaccine funded by his foundation and currently in development would enter a more advanced testing phase in the coming months.

“I am an optimist; I think any tough problem can be solved,” he said. That’s the geek in him talking: marshall all information, analyse problems, respond strategically — and keep at it.

A friend who now works with the Gates Foundation confirms how the charity seeks evidence and rigour in all its social investments. This is no bleeding-heart do-gooding or ‘social work’ for its CSR value. The new wave of geeks lining up to serve the meek bring business acumen to the development sector long under-served by unimaginative aid agencies and self-serving UN organisations.

As Kristof wrote: “Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”

Gates has announced that despite the economic crisis the Gates Foundation will increase spending by US$500 million this year.

In late January 2009, the billionaire philanthropist released the first ‘Annual Letter from Bill Gates‘ where he discussed his work at the foundation and spoke candidly about what has gone well, what hasn’t.

He compared his earlier work at Microsoft with the challenges he now tackles at the charitable foundation. “What I’ve found now is that really those same key elements are there. The opportunity for big breakthroughs is absolutely just as great–now it’s vaccines, it’s seeds that have better yield, it’s ways of sharing teaching practices…they will take the same kind of patience that we had for software breakthroughs.”

Just ahead of the letter’s release, Nicholas Kristof talked with Bill Gates about why aid to developing countries is more important during the economic downturn and vaccine breakthroughs on the horizon. Watch the interview:

Read: Bill Gates’s Next Big Thing by Nicholas D Kristoff, published in the New York Times on 24 January 2009

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