[Editor's Note: Nedra Weinreich recently posted on the Social Marketing List Serve about new trends in Entertainment Education. She graciously accepted my invitation to expand on her thoughts, and here she is...]
The opportunities for social marketers to partner with television networks and other entertainment media to get our messages out are only expanding. This story from Sunday's LA Times (free registration required to access article), underscores the fact that networks such as Lifetime are actively seeking out social causes to support as a way of connecting with their audiences.
For most of its 21-year history, Lifetime made itself the
top-ranked cable television network for women by focusing on heartwarming
programs that stirred no emotional reactions more powerful than a good cry.
But in the last few years, faced with ratings problems, the cable network
has embraced an idea that commercial television has traditionally shunned: the
political arena and social-cause campaigns as a way of wooing viewers.
And it's a strategy that seems to be catching on as cable networks,
especially niche marketers, struggle to attract viewers in a crowded field.
More than 3.2 million viewers last year watched Lifetime's "Baby for Sale" which focused on adoption racketeers. The cable network teamed up with New York state authorities and federal officials to push for legal changes. In fact, it delayed broadcasting the program to give New York Gov. George E. Pataki and others a chance to pass a law making it a felony to charge an excessive fee for an adoption. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation in Congress to make baby brokering a federal crime.
Even more viewers watched Lifetime's recent original movie on sex slavery. Starring Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland, "Human Trafficking" attracted 5.5 million viewers when it aired in October, becoming the highest-rated original movie on ad-supported basic cable in 2005. Again, Lifetime supported lobbying in Congress for changes.
Said Lifetime Senior Vice President Trevor Walton, "Networks have enormous amounts of power."
By effectively matching our health or social issues with the personality or audience of a particular network (which is easier and easier with the ever-burgeoning number of niche cable stations), we can capitalize on the network’s desire to demonstrate that they are relevant and compatible with their audience’s values and lifestyles.
Once, executives in ad-supported television feared that any
incursion into the political world risked alienating viewers. But now, many
cable networks have decided that political causes — and the stars who gravitate
to them — can draw viewers. In Lifetime's case, that's especially true if the issues
are not too controversial, fit the network's target audience, and have a whiff
of the supermarket tabloid about them. In the case of "Human
Trafficking," for example, the film crusaded against the sex trade while
giving viewers a generous look at the lurid details.
"Lifetime has always had that 'women in peril' kind of programming," said Cathy Perron, a professor at Boston University's department of film and television. "If they can wrap themselves in the cloak of social change, it gives them a caring, responsible image with their viewing audience rather than having it just as a way to get ratings."
The Lifetime initiative on human trafficking came about in
part via a project I was involved with, working with the entertainment industry
on behalf of SAMHSA. Through conducting a series of briefings about the
issue of human trafficking for industry execs, along with writers, producers
and researchers of dramatic television series and feature films, we (our
partners included the Entertainment Industries Council and the American
Anti-Slavery Group) were able to accurately incorporate the issue into shows
such as Strong Medicine, CSI: Miami, The Shield, and the Lifetime mini-series.
Beyond television, we elicited interest from other types of entertainment
media such as feature and documentary filmmakers, comic book publishers,
playwrights, and popular magazines.
Another recent article in USA Today, talks about just this strategy and how social marketers at the CDC and NCI are working through the Hollywood, Health and Society Project at the University of Southern California to improve the health information people get while watching television. The Health and Media Research Group at the University of California Los Angeles, headed by Deborah Glik, also does this type of work with the entertainment industry.
With the move toward more and more product placement in television (just look
at shows like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor”) we need to find innovative ways
to harness this trend and place our own issues within appropriate entertainment
programming, looking beyond the traditional advertising and PR strategies we
usually use. As the interruption advertising model fades from prominence
with more people able to TiVo past the commercials, we are going to see
embedding our messages in entertainment programming as a must rather than as a