TV, TB to partner up for audiences abroad
Harnessing mass-media aim of Hopkins group
The same people who had a hand in introducing an HIV-positive Muppet to audiences in South Africa last month, and who’ve crafted a chart-busting hit song in Ghana about the importance of wearing condoms ("If It’s Not On, It’s Not In"), are now making preparations to tackle TB for overseas audiences. Marketing health messages about TB signals a departure for the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Communication Programs (CCP), which until now has confined itself mostly to producing infotainment about reproductive health and family planning, says Kim Martin, chief of media relations for the media program. Plans call for adding to the roster not just TB, but also HIV, malaria, nutrition, and clean water, says Martin. "The thinking is that if you comprehensively address all these health issues, then you can have a bigger impact," she adds. "The idea is to create more health-competent societies."
The packaging will probably range from the traditional public service-style announcements, to the dramatic — say, a plot line in a dramatic TV series, Martin says. The last time marketers used TV to disseminate messages about TB to a wide audience in a developing country was about 10 years ago, she adds.
The creative inspiration behind that project was Esta De Fossard, MEd, MFA, an expert in the field who works as a senior consultant for the Johns Hopkins group. She successfully inserted several TB messages into a TV show popular in Swaziland. The plot called for a popular singer to be wracked with coughing spells each time he prepared to go onstage, De Fossard says. "At first people kept telling him to stop eating so much maize meal," she recalls. In the end, of course, the true reason for the cough was shown to be not dietary indiscretion but disease; and after some initial resistance, the character came not only to accept his diagnosis, but also the importance of taking all his TB meds.
Gratitude for an answer
That may sound about as compelling as watching paint dry — but done correctly, it really works, De Fossard says. "People are often keenly aware of their own lack of knowledge," she says. "If someone with whom you identify strongly goes through something, and in a way that helps you learn about something important, your reaction often will be strongly positive."
When she tackles a project such as the Swazi TV show, she says the first step is to hold "design meetings" with the show’s producers. "We have to decide how many episodes we need, what will happen in each one, and how the characters will develop over time," she says.
Next, she goes to work with the writers to make sure the intended messages are blended into the script in a way that rings true. "That’s the hard part, and it’s 90% of what I do," De Fossard adds. Not all scriptwriters appreciate her input. "Some-times their ego will get in the way," she concedes. "They’re thinking, I’m the creative expert here — get your paws off what I’m doing!’"
The six A’s of how to do it
Whether messages are implanted into a daytime soap or make up a straightforward public service announcement, it’s important to consider the same six elements, says De Fossard:
1. Audience: "You must know the audience," she says. "What’s their problem, and why are they behaving the way they do? What sort of entertainment or media can you use to attract their attention?" What works for American audiences won’t play at all in Islamic Nigeria, she notes.
2. Articulation: "How will you articulate the message, and how will you encourage them to change their behavior?" Fear can used to motivate change, De Fossard adds, "but you must always end on a positive note," letting audiences see the clear benefit of changing their ways.
3. Artistry: "Obviously, you’ve got to have your creative team on board. Plus, the message must be subtle, not too direct." By comparison, De Fossard cites a disastrous series of spots intended to stop domestic violence. The spots were so direct that target audiences defensively reacted. "The characters have to be likeable people with whom the audience can at least initially identify," she says.
4. Advertising: "Promote what you’re doing, and let people know there’s something interesting going on." Not only conventional ads, but items in a gossip column, say, can accomplish this goal.
5. Assessment: "You need to assess responses to the message."
6. Adjustment: "As you get feedback, you may need to make changes."
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