March 26, 2014 | Category: Blog | Author:

“Product placement” for social issues


AmeriCorps, the volunteer teacher program, gets a mention in HBO’s hit drama “True Detective.”

More than a few social-issue groups have hoped for a mention on mainstream TV. After all, television sitcoms and dramas reach millions of people and a different demographic than does, say, network news. And they burrow into viewers’ imaginations in a way that  nonfiction programming might not. That’s the subject of two recent articles. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports this week on how AmeriCorps, the government program supporting good-works efforts, got name-checked on HBO’s “True Detective” (photo above) when one character explains to another that she’s been doing “AmeriCorps” — which the other then notes is “teaching.” That’s it, just two words, but two words before a large audience of young people who may be looking for a cause to dedicate themselves to. And those two words might do more good than, say, a straight public service announcement that viewers are perhaps more likely to ignore. This wasn’t an accident; public-service advocates had been pressing TV writers to write the organization into their shows.

Still, the Chronicle article cautions, such mentions might not yield as many AmeriCorps applicants as the organization hopes. A cause or organization is more likely to be remembered by viewers if it’s deeply embedded into a storyline, rather than just addressed in passing. That would seem to be the case with “16 and Pregnant.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last week that MTV’s hit reality show seems to have lowered teen pregnancy rates more effectively than many sex education programs have, simply by showing — week after week and season after season — the struggles that young moms face. Kristof also points to soap operas propagating progressive ideas about women’s rights and prime-time dramas raising awareness about personal health care. There are reasons to be skeptical of such “product placements” of social issues; the resources an organization puts into getting a brief mention on TV might be better spent on, say, producing their own media or targeting mass media outlets whose audiences closely match the ones they’re trying to reach. That said, if it doesn’t cost much time or energy, there’s probably not much downside to getting a favorable mention on a national TV broadcast.