CHAPTER FIVE

What is Entertainment-Education?

Entertainment-education defines a growing number of strategies for incorporating social messages into popular entertainment. This chapter describes how organizations have used mass media to expand their audiences, reinforce positive behaviors, and create more impactful messages.

One such example is the Harvard Alcohol Project, which from 1988-1994 developed one of the most successful entertainment-education campaigns to date by partnering with Hollywood screenwriters from shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and The Cosby Show to create storylines that included references to “designated drivers.” The campaign garnered support from advocates of the issue, and rapidly began influencing public behavior. During its initial four-year run, annual drunk driving fatalities declined 24%, compared to no change during the three years prior. 

In the last fifteen years, entertainment creators and educators have created sophisticated methods for developing narratives that engage audiences in social issues. The Harmony Institute method sets itself apart from previous efforts by supplementing existing frameworks with behavioral science research. Developed with oversight from a broad network of academics in psychology, sociology, economics, and public policy, this science-based approach uses applied theory to reveal cognitive processes, choice and decision-making models, and, most importantly, ideas for long-term behavior change to assist communicators in creating compelling campaigns.

The use of behavioral science by media makers has been successfully employed in Latin America through telenovas, or Spanish language soap operas. One such example is Ven Conmigo, or Come with Me, which featured a storyline centered on an elderly man grappling with illiteracy. After struggling to read letters sent from a favorite granddaughter, the grandfather seeks out a public literacy program. Upon graduation he is finally able to, albeit through tearful eyes, pour over her correspondence. Social modeling and narrative transportation can greatly influence the outcome of an advocacy campaign. Mexico has a national literacy curriculum that at the start of the series had registered 99,000 students. By its finale, 840,000 people had registered for the courses, an increase of 848% from the start of the series. 

Unlike previous entertainment-education programs, the method developed at the Harmony Institute focuses on communicating primarily through mass media projects. With a strong belief that popular movies, television shows, and other entertainment products have great impact on behavior, the Institute supports collaboration with franchises that have existing audiences and are a source of popular discussion.

Lastly, the Institute encourages comprehensive impact evaluation. It is now understood that media with valuable social and environmental messages should present an opportunity for building compelling case studies of the power of applied theory. By setting up modes of evaluation during the brainstorming phase, communicators can chart the successes and failures of messaging and the immediate and long-term impact of narrative. The Harmony Institute specializes in this type of research and looks forward to working with communicators contributing to this emerging field.


Harmony Institute’s Four Steps to Integrating Behavioral Science into Entertainment

Step One: Background Research begins with a review of the specific social and/or environmental issue to be addressed. It is essential that communicators develop a comprehensive understanding of the issue and examine different perspectives and opinions. Communicators should contact leading organizations working on the issue that can offer goals and incentives for behavior change in the audience. This process also highlights who may be receptive to messaging and the types of media they consume.

Step Two: Locate Audiences deals with finding and understanding the people who need to take action for concrete change to happen. The most effective campaigns target a combination of core and persuadable audiences. Communicators can identify these groups via surveys, focus groups, and information gathered by supporting organizations. Understanding the audience helps communicators select the most appropriate behavioral science models to employ. It also helps determine the preferred media channels (mobile phone, Internet, television, film, print) for transmitting the message to a specific audience.

Step Three: Create Messages focuses on developing the narratives that will engage audiences in the issue. Ideas from behavioral science are applied with a firm understanding of the issue and its audience to maximize the effect of a campaign for change.

Step Four: Evaluate is concerned with understanding and documenting the effects of a narrative. Drawing up case studies and best practices illuminates the valuable lessons learned from a media project.


The next chapter explores current behavioral and persuasion theory and how it applies to audiences of entertainment.


The [Harvard Alcohol Project] broke new ground when TV writers agreed to insert drunken driving prevention messages, including frequent references to designated drivers, into scripts of top-rated television programs ... Entertainment not only mirrors social reality, but also helps shape it by depicting what constitutes popular opinion, by influencing people's perceptions of the roles and behaviors that are appropriate to members of a culture, and by modeling specific behaviors. When the campaign began in late 1988, annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities stood at 23,626. By 1994, fatalities had declined by 30%.
- Jay Winsten, Ph.D, Director of Harvard Center for Health Communication