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Til Debt Do Us Part: South African Soap Opera & Financial Education

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

Will Maletsatsi take the necessary steps to get out of debt and successfully manage her finances in the future? This is the central question posed in Scandal, a South African soap opera that is the subject of a new World Bank Policy Research Working Paper. Maletsatsi, the main character in this show, is in a real bind. After borrowing an excessive amount of money and gambling away her fortunes, she is forced to confess the extent of her debt to family and friends. In one scene, her daughter convinces her to negotiate lower monthly payments with a local furniture store. The store eventually agrees to extend the loan period, but her interest rate goes up and she starts to ignore other bills, leaving them unopened and unpaid. A well-intentioned woman, you can’t help but sympathize with Maletsatsi, who was only trying to create a beautiful home for her husband and family. It is through this emotional connection that television viewers are not only able to relate to the main character’s dilemma, but are also able to share Maletsatsi’s joy as she learns the rules of sound financial management and takes control of her debt.

In Harnessing Emotional Connections to Improve Financial Decisions, Gunhild Berg and Bilal Zia analyze the impact of financial education messages delivered through one of South Africa’s most popular television shows. This is a classic example of entertainment-education, which is otherwise commonly known as edutainment. Scholars like Arvind Singhal, a big proponent of this method, have defined entertainment-education as “the process of purposely designing and implementing a media message to both entertain and educate in order to increase audience member’s knowledge about an educational issue, create favorable attitudes, shift social norms, and change overt behavior” (Entertainment-Education and Social Change).  South Africa is the ideal place for this type of research, as a number of social change organizations have been at the forefront of entertainment education programming for some time. For nearly three decades, NGOs like the Soul City Institute for Health Development Communication have been using the influence of mass media to address a wide range of health and development issues.

So, how did the authors approach this study? Interestingly, they compared the outcomes of individuals who were randomly assigned to watch Scandal, the soap opera with financial messages, to those of individuals who were invited to watch Muvhango, a similar soap opera without financial messages. Because both shows overlapped in the evening, the authors were able to create an artificial separation between the treatment and control groups that enabled them to identify the effects of financial literacy delivered through Scandal.

After two intermediate and one final follow up survey, the analysis found that individuals assigned to watch Scandal had significantly higher financial knowledge of the issues highlighted in the soap opera, especially messages delivered by the main character. Similarly, on behavior, Scandal viewers showed positive outcomes. They were almost twice as likely to borrow from formal sources, less likely to engage in gambling, and less prone to enter hire purchase agreements. Finally, and probably most revealing, the messages from the South African National Debt Mediation Association (NDMA), the organization that helped Maletsatsi build a financial plan to help repay her debts, did not get very much traction. While the authors did see a large number of calls received within days of the NDMA being featured in the show, their long term analysis showed no recall of the organization or any memory of a debt counselor from NDMA appearing on the show. In their qualitative discussions, the authors found that a lack of familiarity with the guest actor that played the role of NDMA counselor played an important role in this. Because the counselor only appeared on the show for 2-3 episodes, the audience members did not get the chance to establish an emotional connection.

In all, the authors make convincing arguments about the critical role of entertainment media in achieving development impact. They find it to be an important tool for policymakers to deliver carefully designed educational messages that can potentially influence financial knowledge and behavior.

Indeed, this paper makes an important contribution to entertainment education literature. What sets it apart from many other studies is the emphasis on emotions and long term impact. As stated in the paper, memory, familiarity, and emotional connections should be considered central issues when designing public service messages in mass media productions. When these messages are delivered by affable main characters, they can potentially lead to greater retention and impact. So, when our beloved Maletsatsi gets trapped in the spiral of debt, the story of her financial redemption reaches and changes us.

Photo Credit: Flickr user K. Kendall

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