In an episode of Eastenders, we see characters Lauren Branning and Phil Mitchell struggling with alcohol misuse. There are trials and tribulations for both and obstacles to overcome. Through family and community support, as well as assistance from health organisations and alcohol support groups, we see them gradually getting better and coming out the other end stronger.
Although they encounter moments of relapse, as do real-life people struggling with alcoholism, their families and community work together to ensure they overcome the temptation. This is an example of infotainment – an engaging story, which ultimately hopes to educate and inform about very real-world social issues.
In my work, I explored the effectiveness of “edutainment” by conducting four focus group interviews with 31 British teenagers aged between 16 and 18 years in Nottingham. The objective was to find out how they received and interpreted health messages, in this case, the consequences of excessive drinking as portrayed in EastEnders. I also wanted to establish their views on the effectiveness of the soap opera genre to convey such a key public health message in comparison with other health education methods used, for example, school interventions.
Connecting with characters
In total, 16 girls and 15 boys were interviewed through focus group discussions. These participants were drawn from diverse backgrounds in order to capture different cultural and social perspectives. Before the discussions started, participants were asked to watch selected episodes of EastEnders, which featured alcohol misuse storylines.
What I found is that young viewers mostly preferred edutainment about excessive drinking rather than formal alcohol intervention lessons and lectures. The teenagers noted that programming like this helped them to visualise and more fully understand the consequences of social issues through characters with who they could relate and emotionally connect with. Whereas being abstractly informed about social issues through intervention lessons and lectures wasn’t considered as effective. One participant noted:
I think watching it through EastEnders is better than having somebody coming here to speak to us. You know when somebody speaks to you, it’s full-on and you can’t really see the effects on the people, they are just telling you about it…
…when you are watching EastEnders, you get to follow the characters to see what happens to them afterwards … but someone telling you it’s hard to actually point out what’s what and what will happen in the future if you do this whereas if you can see it and follow them, it’s easy to know and it’s easy to understand what’s what.“
Another participant applauded EastEnders for using Phil Mitchell and Lauren Branning to remind viewers of the importance of supporting family and friends to stop them from relapsing back into drinking. They noted:
Phil and Lauren were drinking like quite a while back and they actually overcame their problem but what I have noticed is that EastEnders do bring it up every now and then. [Eastenders is] just being realistic, for example, if you have a friend or family member who may be stopped drinking now, who was like an ex-alcoholic, maybe you should still keep an eye on them because you never know when they go through problems, they can always start drinking again.
Dramatising alcohol messages was also seen to have a longer-lasting impact than formal health intervention programmes conducted in schools. These were not only perceived as less effective but also patronising at times.
One participant noted: “if we were to have a health educator in front of us talking to us or lecturing us about health or how good it is, it would be boring, we would forget about that the minute we walked out of the door, we would just remember certain parts, but as EastEnders is a soap opera and is there to entertain and it has a lot of cliff hangers in between, it’s easy for us to remember.”
All female participants expressed a preference for edutainment. But some male participants preferred to be educated about excessive drinking through a mix of formal awareness programmes and infotainment. These male participants felt that this ensured they received undiluted factual information about the health issue.
Overall, the research concluded that for popular television health messages to appeal to young audiences, they must be realistic and draw on lived experiences, so they can be relatable. In one episode of EastEnders, for instance, Phil Mitchell is seen being physically violent to family members and also destroying property while drunk. This was seen by many respondents as speaking to the reality of excessive drinking. Some participants went further to share that this and other alcohol scenes from EastEnders reflected their own real-life experiences with family members who are struggling with alcohol.
On the other hand, if messages are not resonating with their audience’s real life experiences, they are likely to be rejected by viewers.
To ensure their storylines are factual and accurate and therefore convincing to their viewers, soap opera writers liaise with health organisations who fact check the health storylines. This is so that viewers are not given misleading information about health conditions being portrayed.