A RECENT world news story managed to catch my attention more than most people would think it ought to. A New York Times article, republished in Melbourne newspaper The Age on Saturday, described how an affluent member of North Korea’s privileged class chose to defect to South Korea after watching the Korean soap opera Scent of a Man. The article, called “North Korea’s Forbidden Love? Smuggled, Illegal Soap Operas”, explained how mathematician Jang Se-yul jeopardised his fortunate social position in North Korea to binge-watch the 18-episode drama series about the forbidden love between an ex-convict and his stepsister. Having been discovered watching the contraband material, Mr Jang was demoted to manual labour, but he managed to defect south where he began smuggling soap operas and other forms of cultural entertainment into the north to “empower people to demand an end to authoritarian rule”.
While Kim Jong-un denounces soap operas like Scent of a Man as being “poisonous elements of capitalism”, a growing number of intelligent North Koreans, like Mr Jang, have turned cloak after having witnessed glimpses of the better, lavish lifestyles their counterparts were afforded in neighbouring nations. Such was the North Korean authorities’ paranoia over the potential influence of foreign soap operas that at least 50 people, including around 10 officials in Kim Jong-un’s own party, were publicly executed last year for watching them.
So why are soap operas being treated like the devil in disguise by the North Korean leadership?
It turns out soap operas and similar cultural media have played a significant role in the destruction of political regimes in the past, and have been useful in directing informative, educational lessons or subliminal marketing messaging to national populaces.
Soap: The financial backbone of the daytime serial
The idea of a “soap opera” was initially devised by the American radio executives who were desperate for advertisers to sponsor their radio shows during the Depression era. With most wives and mothers still staying at home, female homemakers provided a perfect dependable demographic to market products to. So executives came up with the idea of producing a daytime serial during which to advertise household goods. The first serial considered to be a “soap opera” was Painted Dreams, which debuted on Chicago radio station WGN in 1930.
Soon, other radio networks got in on the deal and Procter & Gamble’s Oxydol became the first major soap powder company to sponsor a popular daytime serial drama in 1933. Eventually, the company began to produce as well as sponsor the radio shows, which then became referred to as soap operas. Procter & Gamble went on to sponsor and produce many of the first televised soapies in the 1950s and 60s, going on to sponsor big name ones such as The Young & the Restless and As the World Turns.
While soap operas nowadays attract a wide array of advertisers, not just soap companies and household products, their conception as a marketing model lives on today. In fact, as a narrative with no resolution and characters that people can either relate or look up to, soap operas are a perfect platform for (sometimes shameless) product placements and marketing strategies. This advertising formula has even been exported across the world, and made particularly famous by South American media organisations, whose “telenovelas”, their own spin on American serial daytime dramas, have perhaps become even more successful than their American counterparts.
The soapy psychology of infotainment – an easy persuasion tool
Psychologists argue there are two distinct ways of persuading someone to change his or her attitudes: there is a central route, which often involves explaining or rationalising something, and a peripheral route – using heuristic cues, such as celebrity endorsement or sex appeal, that appeal to the senses. Each have their benefits and disadvantages, but obviously work best when applied together. Soap operas, unlike documentaries or education videos which merely present facts, can achieve both these means to persuasion.
Compared to other cultural media, a greater number of people are enthralled by soapies due to their superficial entertainment value. Once hooked, people begin empathising with the characters in the soapies, or envying their privileged lifestyles, and dissociating themselves with all that the villainous characters stand for, morally and ideologically. Characters are often physically attractive and affluent, sometimes played by celebrities or cultural icons. Social relationships between characters and the social situations they find themselves in are relatable to those which the average person experiences.
These factors, and others still, make soapie characters perfect candidates around which to frame storylines that teach lessons or convey compelling messages. Causal linkages between the characters’ actions and their consequences can easily be established.
The central route and the peripheral route to persuasion are therefore applicable in unison through soapies – people learn vicariously through the consequences of characters’ actions, while drawing empathy (the best way to learn alternative ideas, I’d say) in either their common humanity or physical or societal attractiveness. In relation to propaganda, it can also be evident to the viewer that a comparatively more desirable social or political world is attainable to them, because it is within reach to the characters on-screen – who are seemingly similar to us in character and, in some cases, even dumber or more naïve than us.
The proof of all of this is in the soapy pudding. Independent research has shown that carefully placed lessons on sexual health in radio and television soap operas have changed audience attitudes and behaviour in relations to HIV/AIDS avoidance and use of family planning in developing countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mali, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, St. Lucia, and Tanzania.
One BBC News article, “How soap operas changed the world”, discusses how soapies have helped encourage British farmers to try new techniques to increase agricultural productivity in the years after WWII; or teach Peruvians and Mexicans how to sew and read; or improve gender equality and remove caste-based discrimination in India; or promote gay rights in places as diverse as Britain, Vanuatu and Fiji; or educate Afghanis on the danger of landmines.
Even reality TV drama series, such as MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, have worked some form of infotainment magic on unsuspecting citizenry:
After analysing television ratings, internet searches, Twitter activity and teen birth rates, [American economists] Kearney and Levine concluded that 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off triggered a spike in searches and tweets about birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 per cent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. That’s about one-third of the decline in teen births in the US in that period.
Matt Wade, “Even trashy TV can save the world”, The Sydney Morning Herald
The Soap Opera Effect: A form of cultural interpolation?
The “Soap Opera Effect” is how tech experts like to define motion interpolation, a natural function of LCD televisions which makes certain movies and TV shows look grainy – like a cheap soap opera.
There is also a political dimension to soapies as well, as their proclivity to instill attitude change in people combines forces with the latent political and social reflections embedded in the program, either consciously or inadvertently. The same routes to persuasion that allow soapies to be effective in marketing products or promoting social messages also allows them to subliminally promote political messages as well. It is no surprise that a cultural product initially intended to promote consumerism has become one of capitalism’s most effective campaigners.
The “soap opera effect”, the moniker used by techies to describe motion interpolation in LCD TVs, could equally be used to describe the cultural phenomenon where soap operas influence people to adopt certain lifestyles, cultural trends or political ideologies. Just as motion interpolation fills in the blanks between frames in a motion picture, the marketing – or propaganda – function of soap operas allows people to read between the lines, so to speak, about the types of cultural products or lifestyles that are, or could be, available to them.
The most patent example of this fact comes via Dallas. In an influential 2008 Washington Post opinion piece, “How ‘Dallas’ Won the Cold War”, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch argue that the 13-year soap opera that was essentially about the excesses of capitalism – which recently resumed production – made viewers in Warsaw Pact nations marvel about the luxuries afforded to people in the US.
I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall of the [Soviet] empire.They would see the wealthy Ewings and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have all this stuff.’ I think it was good old-fashioned greed that got them to question their authority.
Larry Hagman, actor who played the oil tycoon J.R. Ewing on Dallas (see here for source).
Indeed, it would be erroneous to exaggerate the significance of soap operas in bringing down communism, but in certain nations there was an obvious impact. Allowed to be viewed in Romania because it was considered to have a sufficiently anti-capitalist message (it did, of course, show the moral corruptibility of the greed-centred capitalist model) Dallas ended up being a bane to the Ceausescu regime as Romanians realised there was, as Gillespie and Welch wrote, “a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap Romanian car”.
The Pentagon has even directly recognised the effectiveness of soap operas as a propaganda tool, introducing soap opera radio-novelas in Colombia aimed at encouraging guerrillas to put down their guns and locals to reintegrate these demobilised militants back into the community. In fact, South American telenovelas have a long history of political influence, exemplified by the 2004 Venezuelan drama series Amores de Barrio Adentro (roughly translated as Love Inside the Neighborhood), an obvious publicity campaign for President Hugo Chávez and his cause in the lead-up to the election that same year.
In the same way soap operas help businesses to sell products, or institutions to raise awareness of social issues, they also allow societies, cultures and nations to spruik the benefits of residing within them.
My final thought: The Jerry Springer-esque post script
The soap opera effect is when a TV produces poor quality film, as per cheesy soap operas, to compensate for motion blur. Perhaps people need a story that sacrifices storytelling quality to break down the barriers between reality and entertainment and impart some lessons – some more important than others; some more malign than others – in the process.