Financial illiteracy remains a pressing problem in the developing world and a myriad of financial literacy programs are now underway to educate and help poor individuals make informed financial decisions. Research on the effectiveness of such programs lags considerably behind implementation, but several evaluations are now underway to understand mechanisms of impact.
But even the best designed, most attractive education tools may fail to reach everyone in a cost-effective manner; and not everyone in the target audience may be interested in taking time out of their daily lives to attend such sessions.
In recent research in South Africa, a colleague of mine, Gunhild Berg, and I tested the idea of taking financial education to the masses without disrupting their daily routines, and without incurring exorbitant production and delivery costs. And we did it, of course, by turning to television!
Our starting hypothesis was simple and powerful: nearly all households, even some in the poorest rural areas, nowadays have a television and on average are fairly attached to programming on it. Further, there is considerable anecdotal and survey evidence to show that messages delivered through television storylines are at least correlated with social change. For example, the greatest number of calls to the US Center for Disease Control’s AIDS hotline in one year came not as a result of a million dollar public awareness campaign or through news and documentary broadcasts, but rather in response to a beloved soap opera character on "The Bold and the Beautiful" who was dealing with a HIV positive diagnosis.
With this body of evidence in mind, the goal of our research was to measure the causal impact of financial education messages delivered through television. We did so by working together with the production company of a popular local soap opera, "Scandal!" to incorporate financial education messages on debt management over a two month long storyline. We then employed a creative evaluation strategy whereby we encouraged a random set of "treated" individuals to watch the show for that two month period, and compared their outcomes with a random set of "control" individuals who were likewise encouraged to watch a different show. The methodology and design are explained in greater detail in the full paper and in the DECFP impact note (see links below).
The main takeaway message to highlight here is that it worked! We find significant improvements in financial knowledge and importantly in financial behavior. In particular, in response to the main soap character over-borrowing through high interest loans, we see that treated individuals started borrowing less through these avenues and more through formal channels. We also see a reduction in unnecessary expenditures, such as gambling. What is really interesting about our findings is the mechanism of impact. Through some detailed focus groups conducted after our quantitative surveys, individuals interviewed identified their connection with the main soap character as the reason why messages delivered by her resonated and stuck.
Hence, emotional connections and familiarity with media personalities certainly play a role in motivating knowledge and behavior change among viewers, and harnessing such potential can be an important channel for achieving development impact.