If you based your own behavior on the lives of your favorite soap opera characters, by now you'd probably be working on your seventh marriage, living under an assumed identity, and secretly dating your randy young tennis coach.
In the United States, at least, soap operas are largely escapism: The characters lead a glamorous, dangerous existence, and their larger-than-life exploits walk a fine line between drama and satire. In Mexico and Kenya it's a different story. Instead of leading lives of corruption and intrigue, the top soap opera idols there are models of decorum. And as Rashmi Mayur and Bennett Daviss report in The Futurist (Oct. 1998), some of the shows are selling more than detergent: They're spreading a compelling family planning message to vast audiences.
In Mexico, Population Communications International (PCI), a New York-based advocacy group, teamed up with sociologists and television producers to create Accompagñame ("Come Along With Me"), a dramatic series featuring the struggles of a lower-class family with two children. In one episode, the wife, afraid that a larger family may keep them from realizing their economic ambitions, convinces her reluctant husband to accompany her to a birth-control clinic. The husband agrees—in part because he believes his wife will be willing to have sex more frequently once she no longer has to worry about getting pregnant.
The show was a hit in more ways than one: In the six months following the birth-control episode, registration at Mexico's family planning clinics jumped by 33 percent.
Accompagñame has since left the air, but PCI has taken the model to other countries. In Kenya, the organization produces a radio and television serial that reaches 40 percent of the population, often outdrawing even national soccer matches. The show, Ushikwapo Shikamana ("If Assisted, Assist Yourself"), deals with family planning and related concerns, such as land inheritance in large families. Results have been equally impressive: Contraceptive use rose by some 58 percent following the serial's premiere, and, according to The Futurist, recent polls indicate that Kenyans' desired family size has fallen from an average of 6.3 children to 4.4.
"People watch and listen because they are entertained by a good story," says PCI president David J. Andrews. "They learn because the characters become role models whose experiences reflect an intriguing variety of both positive and negative behavior."
Contact Population Communications International at 777 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017; 212/687-3366; www.population.org.