Soap opera social engineering

In Brazil, the data suggests that prime-time programming contributed to a national decline in fertility rates.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, Soap Operas, Brazil, Latin America,

Interesting facts I learned about Brazil from the paper “Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence From Brazil,” by Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong and Suzanne Duryea. (Thanks to Chris Blattman’s consistently interesting blog on “economic development, political change and conflict in the developing world” for the link.)

  • In the early 1990s, more than 50 percent of Brazilian 15-year-olds were functionally illiterate, but 81 percent of all households owned a television set.

  • Brazil’s total fertility dropped from 6.3 in 1960, to 5.8 in 1970, 4.4 in 1980, 2.9 in 1991, and to 2.3 in 2000. The only other large country to experience a similar decline is China, but Brazil’s fertility decline occurred in the absence of any official population control policy.

  • The vast majority of Brazilians regularly watch the 8 p.m. novela, or soap opera, produced by Brazil’s dominant television network Rede Globo.

  • “We find that the parents living in areas that are reached by Globo are significantly more likely to name their children after the name of the main characters of novelas aired in the year in which the children were born.”

  • “Over the full sample of 7 and 8 pm novelas aired between 1965 and 1999, in 62.2 percent of the novelas the main female character does not have any children” and “in 20.7 percent she has one child.”

  • All other things being equal, the penetration of Globo into a particular market during the years 1965-1999 is associated with a measureable decrease in fertility, especially among households characterized by lower education and wealth.

  • Brazilian novelas are reported to be better than Mexican and other Latin American telenovelas, “because of the high quality of their plots and of their making.”

To summarize: The prominence of childless women in Brazilian soap operas provided such potent role models to Brazilians that they contributed to a decline in the nation’s fertility rate.

The authors conclude:

Our findings have important policy implications for today’s developing countries. In societies where literacy is relatively low and newspaper circulation limited, television plays a crucial role in circulating ideas. Our work suggests that programs targeted to the culture of the local population have the potential of reaching an overwhelming amount of people at very low costs, and could thus be used by policymakers to convey important social and economic messages (e.g. about HIV/AIDS prevention, children’s education, the rights of minorities, etc.). Recent work by social psychologists (e.g., Paluck, 2007) stresses the role of the media, and of radio soap operas in particular, as a tool for conflict prevention. Our paper suggests that this type of programmes may be usefully employed for a broader set of development policies.

In general, social engineering of the kind advocated by the authors raises How the World Works’ shackles, but I’ll readily concede that it is a less objectionable way to achieve the goal of population control than one-child-per-family laws or forced sterilization. Still, the irony here is that, supposing the authors’ data-crunching holds up, the fertility decline was nevertheless largely unintentional. The childless female novela stars were the creation of writers who had no other outlet during the repressive years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, and were doing their subversive best to critique society by sneaking in a whole raft of “modern ideas such as female emancipation in the work sphere, the female pursuit of pleasure and love even if through adultery, display of homosexuality, criticisms to machismo, and emphasis on individualism.”

One suspects that if the government had purposefully gone about creating programming that aimed at presenting Brazilians with role models meant to be emulated, the shows would have been lousy and no one would have watched them.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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