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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>