Health & Hollywood: "Putting a Little Spinach in the Popcorn"

Oct 31, 2011, 5:49 PM, Posted by


Television gets a bad rap for negative health messages. But some groups are turning that around by incorporating health messages into popular television shows and movies, like Grey’s Anatomy, House and ER on TV and the movie Contagion on the big screen.

Hollywood, Health & Society, based out of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, actually goes into the writer’s rooms of popular television shows to bring them public health stories. “Transportation” is when viewers lose track of their surroundings and come to feel deeply for the characters in the story, said Sandra de Castro Buffington of USC. In this state, viewers are likely to learn more and be more open to changing their views and behaviors.

Entertainment media meets people where they are with content they’re interested in. It’s “putting a little spinach in the popcorn,” said de Castro Buffington – or “putting vegetables on the pizza,” if you ask Jason Rzepka, Vice President of Public Affairs for MTV Networks. MTV’s 16 and Pregnant television show has been criticized by some for glamorizing teen pregnancy, but it reaches teens in greater volume than any PSA and in fact provides a realistic view of teen pregnancy. Even the Vatican newspaper said they were “pleasantly surprised” by the show. A survey found that 93 percent of teen viewers think pregnancy is harder than they’d imagined.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has pioneered research in this area, and partnered with everyone from MTV and BET to Walgreens to get health messages integrated into a variety of platforms. NewPublicHealth spoke with Tina Hoff, Senior Vice President and Director of the Health Communication and Media Partnership Program at the Kaiser Family Foundation about how they are using entertainment partnerships to create change.

NPH: What is your session about at APHA?

Tina Hoff: The panel that I’m on is being organized by the Advertising Council and the focus of it is about integrating health messages into entertainment platforms, and that’s traditionally been working with popular television shows. That is something that the Foundation has done for many years now to weave in story lines about health issues.

But today we’re seeing this kind of message integration happen in lots of other ways at well. We, for example, are also working with partners like the National Basketball Association, as part of our outreach on HIV efforts to do message integration into games. So you’re seeing things like that happen at sporting events. We also have a partnership with Walgreen’s, the pharmacy company, where we’re working to distribute materials and messages through their stores and do what I would also call message integration in terms of printing information on receipts or doing messaging on in-store audio systems and things like that. So I think a lot of the strategies that we have seen for many years being employed with television is now sending to other areas as well.

NPH: What has the research found on the effectiveness of health messages in television shows?

Tina Hoff: We’ve had early partnerships now going back again about 15 years or so with ER when that show was on the air. We saw very high pre- and post-show shift in knowledge as a result. You know, at the time that ER was on the air it had an audience of about 40 million and it was pretty easy to do a national survey and pull a representative sample. These days, of course, with media segmentation, it gets trickier, but we wanted to update that research and see if some of these same trends that we were seeing back then still hold today.

We worked with Grey’s Anatomy on the subject matter of whether you can reduce the risk of transmission from an HIV positive mother to her unborn child. If a positive woman is on medication she can reduce the chance of spreading the disease to the baby by as much as 98 percent. We wanted something that many people don’t know.

So we worked with the show to develop a story line that ran in the episode. We did a survey a week before the show aired of Grey’s Anatomy viewers and found that only 15 percent were aware that these medications would reduce the risk of transmission significantly, and then we repeated that survey with another random sample of Grey’s Anatomy viewers one week later and we saw a significant increase, up to 61 percent. Obviously, very encouraging and validating in terms of some of the things that we believe about the power of entertainment to be important health communicators. It was 45 percent six weeks later, which to us says, not only is media a powerful partner, but [the message] also needs to be repeated and that repetition is really key if you want to sustain that knowledge and continue to get out information and reach the public.

NPH: Are there certain kinds of TV programs or audiences that you try to reach that entertainment health messages work well with and others less so?

Tina Hoff: For us it’s really about finding the partner who reaches your audience and has the attention of that audience and has credibility with that audience. So that’s really what I think is critical, and then to work with them to craft and shape a message that speaks to the segment of the audience that they’re reaching. With partners, we were able to do messaging on everything from reality programs like America’s Next Top Model to sitcoms. We actually had a lot of success integrating messaging about a pretty serious issue into a lighter format.

NPH: Usually in public health, television is kind of portrayed as a negative influence. How have you worked with that and been able to turn that around?

Tina Hoff: It obviously is sort of a two-way street, and in some ways the more negative portrayals tells us that media can have an influence, and so we really work try and harness that opportunity to do something good. Most writers and producers and people that we work with, they’re not looking to get out that information. They want to be compelling and entertaining and that’s their first agenda, and we really see our role being to help make sure that what they are communicating, while being as entertaining as possible and attracting the most attention, is also accurate and informative and hopefully helping to advance some of these social and health issues. So I think it’s really about taking advantage of that opportunity. If there’s a lot of sex on television, that’s an opportunity to do a lot of messages around sexual health, and we’ve really tried to work from that framework.

NPH: What would you suggest for others in the field who are looking to work with media as a partner?

Tina Hoff: There are great groups out there that are kind of coordinators whose job it is to work with these shows and have really good relationships and are working kind of across issues. Hollywood Health & Society, which was actually underwritten originally by the CDC to help make sure that content on health issues across the board in television was being accurately portrayed, and I think approaching a group like if you’re representing the issue and talking to them to help become that liaison for you is a really good way to do it.

Writers are looking for stories and whatever kind of stories you can share with them that will inspire those pieces that’s helping them do their job and it’s helps achieve the goal of getting out that content.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.