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  • 28th Mar 2024

Broadcasting anti-corruption education to millions

A behind-the-scenes look at designing and evaluating behaviorally-informed edutainment (Blog 3 of 3)

Imagine a world where television doesn’t just entertain, but also reshapes society and transforms lives for the better—where producers and script writers have a wealth of published knowledge to refer to for storytelling techniques that can help change viewer behavior.

This isn’t just a dream. It’s a developing reality. Television is already influencing our lives offscreen. 

In 1969, Simplemente María, a soap opera about an industrious single mother, led to a spike in literacy class enrollment in Peru. Edutainment experiments have also helped promote healthy sexual development, improve financial decision making, and prevent intimate partner violence

BIT has summarized some of the evidence behind effective edutainment and how it could help encourage sustainable lifestyles. We’ve also explored the role of mass media in peacebuilding efforts.

However, the evidence base around educational entertainment content remains small, despite consistent growth. This is partly because conducting causal evaluations of television’s effects can be challenging, especially in randomized designs. As a result, the total impact edutainment can have isn’t fully known, especially on behaviors contributing to entrenched issues, like corruption.

As part of our Nigerian anti-corruption work funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (about our partnership and digital interventions), we bridged the gaps among casual evaluation, edutainment, and behavior change. The project offers a model for how these evaluations could be conducted in the future.

An edutainment TV show to combat electoral corruption

From 2021 to 2023, BIT collaborated with Equal Access International and Griot Studios to evaluate a new season of a popular political drama series watched by millions. At the time of our trial, the series was entering its eighth season and focused on storylines to help educate viewers and reduce corruption ahead of national elections.

The series collaborated with us to integrate messages informed by behavioral science (the study of human behavior and how our actions are shaped by contexts) into the fictional story. Our team evaluated the program’s effects on viewers’ beliefs and knowledge of reporting corruption, as well as their behaviors, through a rigorous randomized field trial.

While the results of our research are pending academic publication and cannot yet be publicly shared, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the project.

Barriers to reporting corruption

To design an edutainment intervention that addressed real-world obstacles to reporting electoral corruption, we started by seeking to understand Nigerian contexts. We interviewed people from youth advocacy groups, government representatives from the Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission, and a high-profile politician. Many barriers surfaced through these conversations. 

For example, there’s a belief that reporting corruption is ineffective and can even result in negative repercussions for the reporter. Buying voter cards, underage voter registration, and bribing voters are all forms of fraud that may be going unreported, in part because of how commonplace they seem. Others believe that reporting is seldom done by the average person—and that only educated people can do it.  

Behavioral insights in the season’s storyline

Working closely with the show’s writers and producers, we incorporated behavioral insights and techniques into the new season. The writers ensured that the behaviorally-informed messages rang true to the series and would resonate with viewers while our team suggested additions to target and address the key barriers. 

Some of the behavioral insights we drew from included:

Positive behavior role modeling. Social modeling theory says that people learn what to do based on what others do, especially in new or uncertain situations. Some of the show’s characters served as role models for viewers by overcoming obstacles and taking desirable actions, like reporting. We also incorporated the “transitional character” from the Sabido methodology, where someone gradually transforms from a negative or neutral character into a positive one.

“Transportation” and character identification. We aimed for viewers to feel “transported” into the show and become fully immersed in the story, as this is a key mechanism by which narratives can start to change beliefs and attitudes. By connecting with the main transitional character’s arc into a positive character, we hoped viewers would see a reflection of their own potential path to change—and feel inspired and capable of shifting their behaviors.

Social norms. We presented norms that ideally should be considered socially acceptable in Nigeria, like reporting corruption and having challenging conversations about it with friends. To improve perceptions of reporting electoral corruption, we featured it repeatedly and showed its positive effects.

How we evaluated the TV intervention

To determine if the series had really changed people’s behaviors and views on reporting, ideally, we’d want to compare corruption reports between two groups: one that saw the show and one that didn’t. But episodes are broadcast each week. We can’t prevent people from watching, so we took a different route: a randomized encouragement trial.

More than 6,000 people participated in a four-month trial while the season aired. We randomly assigned them to a group paid to watch the series (the treatment) or a group paid to watch an alternative program (the control). 

Thanks to this design, by the end of the experiment, we could determine the real impact of watching the series, rather than the effects of being assigned and paid to watch it. This is a subtle, yet powerful difference that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve with a typical randomized controlled trial. It makes our conclusions about the show’s influence on behavior more reliable and meaningful.

We measured outcomes through surveys conducted via short phone calls to participants using Interactive Voice Response (IVR), an automated technology that calls people with pre-recorded messages and asks them to respond by pressing number keys. This technology made completing the surveys easy and, importantly, let us reach low-literacy participants.

We kept people engaged throughout the trial with short quizzes and incentives as well, which provided rich data and maintained our sample size. Gathering rigorous data through this approach helped us establish causality and learn a tremendous amount about implementing real-world field trials for broadcast media.

For one, the need to be highly adaptive and resilient. During the course of the trial, the election itself was delayed and phone lines went down briefly—identifying and securing back-up options was critical.

The power of local partners 

Our partners, Equal Access International and Griot Studios supported almost every facet of implementation to make it a success, from pilot testing the IVR phone surveys to watching each episode to ensure that post-production changes wouldn’t affect our experiment.

Establishing trusted and respectful relationships with the show’s writers and producers from the start was also essential. They shared early drafts of scripts, detailed production schedules, and allowed us to iteratively suggest inputs on storylines. 

Without this outstanding collaboration between all partners, achieving such a high quality intervention wouldn’t have been possible.

What’s next

We’re thrilled that the series producers have chosen to continue partnering with us—we’re currently working with them to evaluate the drama’s latest season. Our growing body of work will show that conducting routine causal evaluations of broadcast media is possible and that behavioral insights improves content, ultimately ensuring edutainment is effective long-term.

We will share the trial results once the academic article is published. In the meantime, please contact us to explore enhancing your edutainment efforts with behavioral insights and rigorous evaluation. Together, we can continue building a robust evidence base around edutainment programs.

Download our one-pager on the project here

This project would not have been possible without generous funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We are grateful to Griot Studios, Equal Access International, and the show’s team for their outstanding collaboration and efforts throughout this work.