Saturday, December 4, 2010

Biggest Loser: entertainment education in the form of reality TV

Dominating the health agenda, obesity has represented one of the United States’ priority health and behavior risk campaigns over the past several years.

Whether or not the reality TV show Biggest Loser was designed to be a form of entertainment education, the fact is that it is acting as a platform to raise awareness about obesity.

On the Biggest Loser, obese contestants compete to see who can lose the most weight in a given time period. Cameras follow contestants as they learn better eating habits, how to exercise and how to overcome emotional undercurrents of their eating behaviors. The show provides viewers with education about obesity and how to combat it, creating an entertainment education (E-E) program.

As defined by Singhal and Rogers, E-E is a “strategy used to disseminate ideas to bring about behavioral and social change.”(1)

The Biggest Loser gives the audience positive and negative role models, which illustrate behaviors that contribute to a healthy or unhealthy lifestyles. Viewers are able to identify their own behaviors, actions, and emotions as represented by the “characters” on the show and thus analyze how their own habits compare to the healthy/unhealthy models.

Reality TV shows are wildly popular in the United States, as well as in the global TV market, as we discussed in class on Thursday. In a highly competitive, commercial TV market, reality shows enable social awareness campaigns to reach a vast audience. E-E brings these messages to people in a way that they may not recognize them as such, in part because entertainment is such a prevalent part of people’s daily lives. “Not only does the public consume more entertainment, it is becoming a more integral part of people’s shopping, traveling, eating, driving, exercising, and working experiences,” Singhal and Rogers write. “By adding the luster of entertainment to the relatively “duller” fields of health promotion, education, and development, E-E fits in well with the contemporary global trend to entertainmentization.”(2)

In class we also discussed whether the nature of this program is truly altruistic in providing health information for the sake of health, or if it is another profit-driven program. Either way, the popular TV program is educating a nation, and a world with its international adaptations, that is increasingly obese.

1. Singhal, A. & Rogers, E.M. (2002) “A Theoretical Agenda for Entertainment Education.” Communalization Theory. 12(2): 117-135.

2. Ibid.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I don't care about communication education

Somehow, I thought the segment on communication and development was going to be different. While I am known to sometimes look too literally at words and phrases, sometimes maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I was honestly kind of disappointed when I discovered that the segment was on education. It’s not that I’m against education, and it does make sense to use education as a vehicle for development, but that I thought we were going to learn more about access. This might be my uberliberal side poking through, but education is not the only thing that separates the haves from the have-nots, undeveloped countries from developed ones. Yes, teaching the youth in the Third-World about AIDS/HIV and being tolerant to a host of issues is great, but what is the US’ excuse? We are ‘developed’ but we’ve still got a lot to learn about tolerance and diseases that run rampant in this country.

I want to talk about access. I want to talk about entrepreneurship and how people can bring development to their region. I want to talk about the goals of the people. I want to talk about what people think development is, and through that, what measures can we take work together to achieve our goals. I say I want to talk because this is a discussion that I am sure does not happen on a regular basis. In our academic institutions, there is hardly enough diversity to scratch the surface of understanding our goals and the goals of people around us. Even in theory/practice courses, when we try to see what this means, we still are hindered by our own perspective. It is simple enough to think that we do not know what the other guy is thinking or experiencing, yet people still refuse to internalize that to understand what that means. Then we can have some discussion, then we can have some progress.

12/09 an update: My friend posted this on my facebook. It kind of makes fun of communication education in the US through Dora the Explorer.

Is a Global Entertainment Network the Next Step? I Hope So

Transnational entertainment is on the rise with shoes like Sesame Street, the Biggest Loser and American Idol being sold and reformatted everywhere.  CNN, Fox and Al Jazeera broadcast to a huge international audience, but they are news networks.  When will there be a completely transcontinental popular music or children’s network?  It might seem like a pipe dream, but with the growing number regional shows, bridging this gap might just be the next corporate step.  Instead of sending or importing shows to other networks, an international network would made its own programs and partner with production companies everywhere for content. 
I’d like to spend a Sunday watching a line up of Jersey Shore, Lake Shore (Canada) or maybe Bosporus Shore (not actual, yet).  Instead of hunting on the internet for foreign music, I could watch music videos from Mali, Portugal or New Zealand.  World Idol, would be on there.  And of course, a Big Brother World.  If I were creator of this station, I would make sure there was a strong outreach and development component to reach undeveloped entertainment pools.  There might be a lot of opportunities for soft power diplomacy to take root here.  If people became exposed to each others cultures and began to understand their thinking, there would be greater international cooperation.  In the privacy of a living room or in front of a lap top, a person could open their mind about another culture.  It might solidify negative preconceived notions of a culture to (lazy, greedy or impolite), but at least the strange customs would be humanized and therefore less scary. 

Reality Bites

Aside from reality shows where people actually must have a skill--like Project Runway or the Chef shows--I'm not a fan of reality TV, in fact I only watch PR if I remember to and because I love Tim Gunn. But a new book by Jenifer Pozner, "Reality Bites Back" brings up the issue of how women are portrayed in reality TV shows and the genre doesn't make it out unscathed. She points out that any reality show is far from real--each cast is carefully selected, and Pozner points out, women rarely make it past the editing room without perpetuating derisive stereotypes. Pozner writes in an article for Women's News website (

"It's a time-tested bait-and-switch: smart, professionally independent women become more successful by playing the part of the silly, dependent dimwit in the media. The phenomenally accomplished 'I Love Lucy' star Lucille Ball, the first woman to head a Hollywood production company, is probably the most famous TV example. Reality producers may have cut their teeth on 'dumb blonds,' but they want viewers to believe female stupidity knows no racial limits."

Here's a fantastic clip, breaking down how reality tv is edited (I should warn you the last 5 seconds are not appropriate, but by then you'll have gotten the idea and can stop it if you like):

So I think the reason reality TV is so pervasive is something brought up in class--it's cheap, and therefore easy to import, export, distort and watch to make us feel better about our own reality.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I love Smores

A new, more modern, ‘21th century model’ for communication comes in response to the repeated failures of a model that the authors of this article wish to outline and make obsolete. The previous method merely involved firing a stream of information towards the target (this was discussed my September blog: the Effect of Communication on People). It is assumed that if a message is sent then that message will be received by the intended recipient unless there is some sort of interference. It does not take into account the telephone effect or ‘getting lost in translation’. This phrase does not have to mean a literal translation of languages, but a translation of ideas and perspectives. What the sender knows and understands to be true, fact, and the norm may not be the understanding for whom they are intending to communicate.

In several of my elementary school English classes, I was taught to write directions on how to do something: a simple task, like how to make s’mores. The rough draft was simple: Put the marshmallow over the fire until its black or dark brown on the outside, put on top of chocolate, and place both in between graham crackers. Sounds right? Not good enough. In communication, we must remember that those who were are communicating with might not have the same background of understanding marshmallow/chocolate/graham crackers. To work with these minute obstacles, we have to learn to be more specific and sensitive to others perspectives in order to explain something best. Indeed, the issue might be a simple as: what is marshmallow? The commonly sold version in stores is not Kosher or Halal, that blocks out a sizable portion of the prospective participatory population in Muslims and Jews who keep Kosher and Halal. In order to accommodate these people, you must explain what marshmallows are, and where to find gelatin-less, Kosher/Halal versions to use. Additionally, they would need to know that graham crackers come in a box, and that needs to be opened, and that within the box is a bag, and that needs to be opened. Depending on the brand, size might be an issue; this same level of detailed explanation needs to be repeated for the chocolate, and the marshmallows. What do we heat the marshmallows with? What if I’m allergic to chocolate?

The authors attributed failures the so-called War on Terror to a failed communication model. The model that they proposed however does not have to be its own entity; it can be incorporated into the old model. (As we well know, people trained in liberal arts fields are adverse to big changes, so it’s probably best to try an incorporation method rather than something brand-new, unless they only did it for being recognized for doing something new and special). The four principles of the model are
• Deemphasize control and embrace complexity
• replace repetition with variation
• consider disruptive moves
• expect and plan for failure

The first three are very similar; they embrace complexity and seek to look at the issue from a broader lens rather than straight on. The last point is always good to keep on hand. Lower your expectations.

So what did we learn here? Communicate with people as if they are not you. And lower your expectations, because if someone does not want to make s’mores, you’ve wasted your time.

You Think You know, But You Have no Idea: Model UN

 Joseph Nye's soft power can be seen beyond a wide-scale cultural negotiating table, down into a New York hotel meeting room during a National Model United Nations (NMUN) conference. Soft power implies that if a country's culture is well-liked and appreciated by others, that this likability translates to political power.  A nation's trustworthiness and friendship are its most critical tools in international politics, economics, and relations.  My experience in the NMUN conference is a microcosm of this principle in action.  
Students from around the world came to duke it out and take home a little bit of glory.  Certain teams were trained how to win, or, more importantly, how not to lose.  At their command, these officious diplomats had every esoteric rule ready to deploy: roll calls with 200 people, fact checks and date checks – all with the flip of their placards.   To prepare, I went to Macy’s. I told the saleswoman I needed a color that said, “I’m right, co-sign my resolution.”   Ladybug Red became, Sign My Resolution Red.  Other delegates relied less on subtlety; they would rush up to weaker representatives, attack them with questions, accusations and commands, then move on.
“Do you support bilateral efforts to mitigate….?”
“uh, well … Chad believes that its better stick with our regional – “
“- No. That doesn’t work.  You need a … with a … Brazil is making a resolution that would …. You support it? Good. Sign Here.”
Several kids called the conference quits because they couldn’t share any of their opinions and no one listened to them. 
  I looked around the room: crestfallen soldiers sat scattered with index cards full arguments no one would ever hear.  I pulled them together and asked if they would share their ideas with me.  We decided on a scribe, then went around and shared our opinions and perspectives.  In our down time I made sure to share restaurant and shopping tips in the city and swap travel stories. We sat in a circle with the rest of the committee buzzing around behind us.  I figured that if people were going to vote on any resolution I supported, they needed to like me.  Not in a Michael Scott,  I need people to like me, kind of way, but rather in a way that opened them up to share their thoughts with me.  To support my ideas, they needed to trust me. My resolutions developed in depth and practicality with each contribution.  They knew that I cared about their interests and that I considered their opinions in our work.  Credibility and communication are key to soft power.  Sign My Resolution Red became I am Listening Red.
the colloquialism, you win more flies with honey than vinegar summarizes Nye’s concept of soft power.  My strategy worked in the end with all three of our resolutions passing. I received the committee award for diplomacy, which is selected by a peer majority vote. The intimidation tactics of the hard power delegates failed to the soft power of talking and trust. 

The Silver Bullet

If you've ever taken antibiotics of some sort, you're probably aware that instead of downing 30 pills in 30 days you there's a "Silver Bullet" pill out there; something like 6 powerful pills to get you a super dose and you're back to normal in a week. We talked about Corman's point of needing a consistent message that takes time to communicate. There isn't a magic bullet out there and we're so focused on getting everyone to hear our message that we don't think our silver bullet might be, or was once, flawed. I think of how this relates to what we're doing in Afghanistan. After this long, is our message an effective one? Do we specifically tailor our 'antidote' or do we approach people as though they should be capable of understanding our completely different way of communicating?

I liked the example from the lecture about pragmatic complexity and doing what your communication partner doesn't expect. I think we have evolved into a 'quick results' oriented society that doesn't understand how, in all likelihood, we'll fall short of our short term goals and sees being realistic as unacceptable. We've created a number of problems for ourselves and for others in the world and I think we, civilians and government officials alike, tend to think we'll luck out with some kind of silver bullet that takes care of all the past transgressions (we heard the example of Obama's Cairo speech and the lack of follow up). We approach others as though they are no different from us, that the same techniques, the same remedies will work with them as they would for us, but only a fraction of the world is similar to us in the respect. For the rest, we have to battle a stereotype that we're flaky and don't take the time to let a relationship develop. I'm not very optimistic that this will change in my lifetime. We recently heard how there are more people in all the military marching bands than there are in all of the State Department, and given how slowly bureaucracy moves I don't think we'll change our way of relating, communicating and living with people who approach diplomacy or trade differently. The disconnect between people perceiving a quick fix or solution and the slow real-time solution is startling and it will take a form of 'relational or communication literacy', like media literacy only interpersonal, which I think should be taught to everyone along side of media literacy, but that would take a review of the nation's education system...and I don't feel like standing on my soap box for that long!