What did you focus on in your doctoral research?

“The Entertainment-Education strategy. This strategy originated in the 1960s and ’70s – when the entertainment industry realised that they could encourage healthy and pro-social behaviour through soaps and entertainment. It didn’t take long before people starting applying this insight all over the world: in the Netherlands, for example, it can be seen from the 1980s on in programmes like ‘Medisch Centrum West’ and ‘Nederland in Beweging’. This was often at the initiative of health organisations. For example, an episode about a donor heart on ‘Medisch Centrum West’ was produced in collaboration with the Heart Foundation.

“The traditional focus of entertainment-education has been on mass media like radio and television. My dissertation examines how this can be translated to the current media landscape. In this context, you don’t target a large, passive mass audience, but work together with influencers, for example, to initiate dialogue about health and social themes with a variety of target audiences.”

Dialogue rather than simple health messages, in other words?

“Correct. Since the arrival of the internet, audiences have been talking back. You see people organising themselves into groups online, where they consume the same media and play a far more active role than before. In this sense, it’s important for the government and health organisations to approach entertainment-education as a form of dialogue. Online stories can broach specific subjects and raise questions, which in turn encourage people to exchange ideas and perspectives. In other words, you focus on other things besides changing people’s knowledge and attitudes via media exposure. Dialogue can lead to a bottom-up shift in societal norms. In the future, public health communication will follow an inclusive route: shaped together with the audience.”

What does this look like in practice?

“One of the chapters in my study deals with an entertainment-education programme in India (Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, or ‘I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything’). This series deal with gender equality – revolving around the concept of an ‘extended engagement’, among other things. The series uses a gripping storyline to introduce this option as an alternative to child marriages and arranged marriages. The basic idea is that if you wait with getting married, you’ll have time to obtain a degree, start on your career and consequently lay the foundations for an equal relationship within your marriage. The producers’ online strategy was to invite people to share their personal experiences. And they got the desired response, with people explaining why an extended engagement was a good idea. They adopted it as their own idea, as it were, and gave it real-life context through their personal accounts. And other people who read it may be inspired to change their behaviour too. This could be just enough to achieve a shift in people’s attitudes.

“A Dutch example would be Soa Aids Nederland. This organisation quickly realised that its young target audience was moving from television to YouTube – and responded accordingly. For example, it initiated an online condom campaign that specifically targeted young women. Research showed that they wanted to use condoms but didn’t take them with them because they were afraid of being thought of as a ‘slut’. In partnership with beauty influencers, the foundation initiated a public discussion about this subject, online, that evoked a lot of reactions – and proved very effective.”

Do people still use the traditional mass media approach too?

“Yes, particularly in the case of major campaigns – albeit often in combination with other channels. This is called the trans-media approach. Mass media channels like television are suited for telling a very clear story, which you can use to broach a variety of other subjects later on within smaller online communities.”

How did you arrive at this research subject?

“I had been working in online marketing for close to a decade, in Enschede. There, we used complex mathematics to manipulate people into buying more stuff. This started to bother me, so I began looking for alternative ways to use this knowledge – to promote green energy, for instance, or help an NGO. I eventually ended up at Erasmus University and the Center for Media & Health: a very interesting collaboration that laid the groundwork for the present dissertation. I can’t imagine it having worked out better. I’m very happy that I can use marketing methods in the interest of public health and pro-social behaviour. In May, I started my own business in Rotterdam-Charlois. I want to merge the various creative strands found in South Rotterdam to promote a liberal, tolerant and sustainable society.”

Why did you decide against an academic career?

“Right now, for example, I’m working with youth workers and talent coaches on a concept that uses culture to enable adolescents to discover their talents – be it rap, poetry or dance. I try to help them set things in motion when it comes to issues that are specifically important to them. And in South Rotterdam, I’m a lot closer to the target group. If you do something like this on campus, people are less likely to join in. So for me, it was important to set up in the actual neighbourhood.”