Influencing through Entertainment

In 1998 NBC quietly introduced a primetime sitcom about a single woman and her male best friend living together in a Manhattan apartment to its line-up. Will & Grace chronicled the comedic escapades of a group of thirty-something, career-oriented friends. It also happened that two of the main characters were homosexual men.

Over a decade later and countless hours of editorializing, homosexual characters on major network television are commonplace, and the effects of Will & Grace on the attitudes toward and perceptions of gays in America is widely recognized. In a 2006 study, researchers found that the sitcom had the strongest influence on reducing sexual prejudice among those viewers who had the fewest direct gay contacts, the same group of respondents who reported having the highest feelings of prejudice toward homosexuals before viewing the show. In a balanced pool of respondents, a range consisting of those who reported feeling highly prejudiced toward gays and those reporting little-to-no prejudice, 60% felt that the show encouraged them to think more positively about homosexuals.

Even with successes like Will & Grace, narrative is still largely untapped in its potential to motivate change and increase awareness. Mainstream entertainment influences our perceptions, emotions, and behaviors, often in the name of consumption. But the extent and quality of the media we consume can also profoundly influence our social attitudes. Social learning theory illustrates that behavior change can be achieved through an individual’s connection to vicarious experiences. The following sections will explore behavioral theories that, when applied to narrative, have the potential to significantly influence the effects of a social issue campaign.


Embedded in the information we receive each day, from newspaper headlines to medical results, are framed messages. Some frames are unconscious, others intentional. Framing is most simply an attempt to achieve a desired interpretation of an issue or event. By contextualizing your message in a way that resonates with a target audience, the twin goals of defining an issue and motivating a particular group to act become much more likely to succeed.

For example, the current debate on net neutrality employs frames that resonate with Americans and their value system. Senator John McCain's bill, the "Internet Freedom Act," frames deregulation as freeing the Internet from the dominant hand of Washington. This frame does not fit the social consequences of the policy, since the Internet Freedom Act would enable major ISPs to centralize Internet content, services, and applications. "Freedom" and its connotations are widely valued by Americans, and its use by opponents of net neutrality distorts the argument. Framing the fight for net neutrality as an issue of "fairness" or of "protecting the middle class" can help re-frame a debate currently centered on partisan definitions of "freedom."

Promotion vs. Prevention

Determining how one would like an audience to perceive a social issue is just the first step in creating appropriate frames. Communicators must also understand which frames will motivate a particular audience to act. As discussed in Chapter Four, people generally approach their goals in one of two different ways. Prevention-focused people seek to maintain the status quo or to do what ought to be done. Promotion-focused people seek progress, seeing their goal as the ideal result. Research shows that tailoring messages to a person’s particular focus increases the likelihood for agreement and response.

Research on net neutrality shows that the public is generally less concerned with gaining faster, more affordable service (a promotion focus). Rather, they prefer maintaining the cost and connection speeds currently offered by their ISP (a prevention focus). Therefore, a message directed to small businesses owners, for instance, who have a vested stake in the open Internet but are as yet unaware of the net neutrality debate, should discuss the need to “defend” (as opposed to “attain”) the open Internet.

Consider the different connotations of the two sentences below:

Attaining open Internet protections today is the best way to secure long-term financial security for our business.

Defending our access to the open Internet is the best way to secure long-term financial security for our business.

Prevention wording can be added into a narrative to guide the overarching theme of a storyline. A complete list of promotion and prevention words is available in Part I of FTW! on page 14.

Addressing Attitudes

Using applied behavioral science theory can help promote controversial issues even among the most skeptical audiences. Much of social psychology looks at how people are prompted to change their attitudes and beliefs, even taking action on an issue through subtle and unconscious routes. The way a message is framed and the terms associated with this frame only scratch the surface of the many things that influence whether or not an audience will trust and support the position taken in a media campaign.

Persuasion theory has identified two routes that influence how an audience receives a message. One important factor is the strength of the argument. People are more likely to embrace an issue if they clearly understand the justifications for or against it and agree with its solution. Storytellers should strive to insert accurate, intelligible reasons for the given position.

Who communicates a message also has great influence on how it is received by audiences. Messages resonate best when they originate from an "expert" source or attractive personality. Spokespeople are highly effective at promoting brands for just this reason. Research has found that a trusted, admired, or respected messenger is effective at establishing credibility for arguments among audiences that might have been otherwise opposed.

Neither of these routes should be emphasized more than the other. A careful balance between clearly articulated, logical arguments and the charisma or authority of your spokesperson should produce a longer-lasting effect than total reliance on one or the other.

Narrative Transportation

While research shows the power of persuasion by the two routes outlined above, there are ample arguments for the limitation of this strategy if used alone. The main shortcoming remains its long-term impact. Standard models show a steep decline in effect as time passes, resulting in advocacy campaigns that produce only small shifts in the attitudes or behavior of an audience. We have identified two ways to remedy this: the first is to employ narrative as a persuasion tool; the second is to repeat the message.

Research into the effect of fictional narratives on real-world perspectives suggests that belief change not only persists, but also may be magnified over time. When audiences enter a fictional world they take a mental journey that allows them to suspend the confines of their traditional beliefs. This allows the storyteller to propose new ideas that would have, under other circumstances, been rejected. Psychologists suggest that the acceptance of these ideas through narrative takes place involuntarily as the brain immerses itself in the fictionalized world. The long-term persuasive power of narrative resides in its “sleeper effect,” i.e., the impact of an idea increases over time when the one discounting cue, that the source of information is a fictional account, is forgotten.

The effects of repeat exposure have also been readily researched and employed by communicators. Many times, audiences develop a preference for things based purely on familiarity. Repeating an argument and solution for the threat to net neutrality is easier for audiences if embedded in an entertainment series. TV shows, web programs, video games, and book series can restate and reaffirm a position, draw in larger audiences, and provide a more sophisticated dialogue on a social issue than a 30-second public service announcement.

Why Scarcity Scares

The concept of scarcity offers a persuasive frame for social issues. Take note of how the idea of scarcity has infiltrated the debate on immigration. The argument that illegal immigrants place an unfair tax burden on the public plays into concerns about the scarcity of wealth and personal resources. The psychological response that scarcity triggers influences many charged social issues.

Predictably, people are much more likely to take action if they believe that their current way of life is threatened.   For example, framing the open Internet as interconnected with other social problems, especially those that affect local communities, will keep individuals from ignoring the debate or leaving action for another day. In this instance, keeping narratives local means discussing the dominate Internet service provider in an area by name, talking about regional policy struggles and personalities instead of "the government," and using characters that could be neighbors or friends.

Social Proof

Narrative provides the perfect setting for another theory known to significantly influence our behaviors. Social proof refers to the way people learn through observing and modeling the behaviors around them. Our attitudes and actions are the result of closely monitoring our peers and community leaders. Studies have revealed that the more a peer or leader possesses characteristics that people find appealing, such as talent, intelligence, power, popularity, and physical attractiveness, the more likely people are to model their behavior.

By creating characters that serve as role models for the audience, communicators can verbalize powerful messages and exhibit proactive behavior. Entertainment-educators have found that narratives in which positive characters are rewarded and negatives ones are punished create lasting effects in real-world audiences.

Magnify Your Message

Have you ever talked to your friends about the plot of last night's episode of Lost or maybe the romantic comedy you saw last weekend? Studies show that the more individuals discuss entertainment in groups, the more they internalize its values and themes. By opening up conversations to a wide range of knowledge, skill, and personal experience, people access information that far exceeds their individual ability “to know.” By hearing a range of perspectives, people come to more feasible conclusions that fit into group norms, amplifying social proof.

To initiate broader conversations with audience members who cannot physically gather together, communicators can coordinate both informal and formal discussions online. Social networks, online games, and live events can bridge the gap between fictional narrative and real life, uniting fans of the entertainment with those who are interested in promoting the open Internet.

For example, the award-winning online narrative game World Without Oil made use of blogs, web video, voicemail, digital images, and message boards to create a collaborative fictional account of a 32-week global oil crisis. By channeling the “collective imagination,” the game was able to create and disseminate solutions to a crisis before it occurs.

Overcoming the Single Action

Offering up multiple solutions counteracts a behavioral problem known as the single-action bias. Although most people realize that complex problems often require more than a single act to fix, humans tend to choose and participate in one action that alleviates feelings of responsibility. Studies have found that taking any action, even a small or ineffective one, quells negative emotional prompts such as vulnerability, fear, and guilt. Once individuals meet these emotional needs, they are less inclined to engage in other solution-oriented behaviors. The single-action bias can sabotage comprehensive but multi-step solutions.

For maximum effectiveness, narrative campaigns must have an associated action strategy for their audiences. Asking for a commitment to act and providing an immediate outlet for action will engage people. Combating the single-action bias also means following up with your audience, recruiting them to take additional actions and reminding them that acting once is never enough.

The possibility that Will & Grace could reduce prejudice against gay men is supported by research investigating parasocial interaction. Parasocial interaction simply refers to the phenomenon that viewers form beliefs and attitudes about people they know ... through television, regardless of whether such people are fictional characters or real people. Perhaps, because the human brain typically processes media experiences similarly to how it processes ‘direct’ experience, people often react to televised characters as they would real people.
- Schiappa, Gregg & Hewes