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Can a Soap Opera Spread Health Messages?

Soap Opera Stars from C'est La Vie

January 9, 2019

By baking rich social content into each script, the new half-hour soap opera C'est la Vie brings a unique twist to the tradition of telenovelas to Africa. The show is designed to do more than entertain, the team behind C'est la Vie is hoping to also raise awareness of important public health issues.

In a part of the world where young women often lack basic knowledge about their bodies, C'est la Vie translates research-based messages about sexuality and reproductive rights, maternal and child health, and gender violence into captivating story lines. The series is a program of Réseau Africain d’Education en Santé, a nongovernmental organization with the mission of advancing health, education and citizenship in Africa. It is produced by Alexandre Rideau.

To measure the full impact and value of using an entertainment vehicle to spread health messages, Philip Massey, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the department of Community Health and Prevention at Dornsife, along with Deborah Glik, ScD, from the University of California at Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health, have each received $300,000 over three years, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to evaluate C'est la Vie

Building on digital research, the Dornsife component neatly weaves together the many strands of Massey’s expertise. Fluent in French and knowledgeable about public health and the healthcare systems of West Africa, he has a longstanding interest in how technology can build connections among peers and spread knowledge.

A combination of opinion polling, surveys, media surveillance, and Google Analytics data will inform the research. "The evaluation uses a mixed-method approach, Massey explains. “In 'media-effects research' it is nice to have different types of data to help tease out and identify different mechanisms and pathways from exposure to outcomes."

Although the ultimate goal is to influence action and decision making, no one expects that to happen overnight. "Absolutely, we will measure norms, but we have to be sure to walk it back and look at shorter-term outcomes that we can measure, given our understanding of theory and human behavior," Massey says. "We know, for example, that messages start to stick when people talk about them with others, so we want to know 'are you talking about the themes of C'est la Vie?'"

Much more than just a TV show, C'est la Vie has been adapted for radio, the internet, and broadcast through YouTube. It has also spawned youth clubs and public screenings and engendered vigorous discussions in community settings and through social media. "We are informing the public and we are putting in space for dialogue and brainstorming and reflection," Rideau says. "It is a combination of mass media and community activity that will really have an impact on the population."