Try to think about a social issue without images from TV or movies flooding your brain. It’s hard to do…
That is because entertainment and pop culture are so often the lenses through which we see the world. They tell stories about topics both new and familiar, provide narratives that help us figure out how we feel and show images that stay with us long after the lights come up or the season has ended.
Our brains are hardwired for stories – sharing them, caring about them, remembering them. Because of this, pop culture gets down deep and makes an impact, often when we aren’t even aware it’s happening.
Social scientists have long studied media’s influence, including how we interpret entertainment. Entertainment can serve as educator, as influencer, as social script. With Americans spending more than 10 hours a day on their screens, pop culture has more ways of seeping into our consciousness and more opportunity to change hearts and minds than ever before.
For example, Super Peer Theory proposes that media can function as a persuasive and effective source of information for young people as to what constitutes normal behavior. Transportation Theory focuses on the sense of losing oneself in a story and becoming more open to the messages within it. Similarly, Identification Theory refers to viewers imagining themselves as an actual character within a story – something that can help foster understanding of what it’s like to be part of a stigmatized group in real life. As people identify with the characters they care about, they often try to model the protagonist’s behavior and avoid the villain’s/antagonist’s behavior – and so on and so forth.
Add the targeted, interactive nature of social media to that mix and you have some powerful tools for spreading messages, building awareness and inspiring action. For example, if a television drama includes a storyline about an undocumented character (or foster care, government malfeasance, LGBTQ rights, low-wage workers, gun violence, etc.), viewers are already thinking – and caring – about that issue, thanks to Hollywood’s or Bollywood’s storytelling expertise. A well-timed tweet aimed at the show’s audience can build on that curiosity, offer additional information and encourage action.
Opportunities extend beyond the Twitter feed. If the binge-worthiest, buzz-worthiest series of the day (think “How to Make a Murderer” or “13 Reasons Why” or “The Handmaid’s Tale”) present issues in ways that get people thinking, talking and looking for more – they also provide the perfect opening for groups who care deeply about those issues (criminal justice reform, suicide prevention or reproductive freedom) to join the conversation with blog posts, op-eds, tweets and memes. Even using a pop culture reference in public communications will make issues more relevant and relatable. Take, for example, when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hosted a Game Of Thrones-themed protest to call out Congressman John Faso on his health care policies. By linking Faso to the famous scene in which a main character is publicly shamed for her treatment of the public, SEIU contextualized for people that elected officials must also be held accountable.
Incorporating pop culture into public interest communications doesn’t replace an existing focus on policy, direct service or behavior change. Rather it is an important complement to standard efforts that reach people where they are, in ways they might not expect.