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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



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>