One of the most popular telenovelas of the last years in Brazil, AvenidaBrasil, was recently announced to be the most successful Brazilian format to date, with more than 50 million viewers and an international broadcast in more than 100 countries. The final episode was the most watched TV program of the year and total earnings of over 1 billion USD show the outstanding adoration of telenovelas in Brazil. The popularity of the main characters’ names for new-borns spike in the months the show is running and clothes are often sold out immediately after being shown on TV. But is it possible that the impact goes much deeper than fashion trends?
In a study from 2009, Ferrara, Chong and Duryea investigated exactly this possibility. They found a link between reduced fertility rates (number of live births a woman declares to have had) and the coverage rate of the most widely known novelas. To do this, they examined the average number of children per woman during a 40 year period and found significant correlation between the coverage spread of RedeGlobo, the monopolist provider of telenovelas in Brazil, and the decreasing fertility in those areas. The authors argue that the depiction of smaller sized families plays an important role in changing the social norm of having many children.
A social norm is a “pattern of behaviour in a particular group, community, or culture, accepted as normal and to which an individual is accepted to conform“.
To change a social norm, it is crucial to understand the underlying reasoning and implement a corresponding policy accordingly. The declining fertility rate in Brazil falls into the category of a descriptive norm, “a pattern of behaviour such that individuals prefer to conform to it on condition that they believe that most people in their reference network conform to it” after having observed such behaviour themselves. A reference network refers to friends, family, neighbours, role models or other people to whom you compare yourself and your actions.
However, it is no easy task to change such a norm. Many of them evolved over centuries and are deeply engrained in the local customs, but there are different theories as to how it might be possible to accelerate social change in a certain direction. Firstly, new laws concerning harmful practices (e.g. female genital mutilation) can prohibit them. Nonetheless, if the law does not feel like a gentle nudge but a forceful push, it might drive people in the opposite direction and cause them to identify themselves even more with the now forbidden practice. This is often difficult for policy makers to anticipate and therefore a very delicate task.
Secondly, deliberation through discussions can change internal frameworks. Often people assume that e.g. it is socially desirable to marry off their daughters at a very young age, but they themselves would have preferred to wait a couple of years. In a group discussion with different members of a community it can become obvious that in reality, the majority is opposed to child marriage and therefore the parties concerned might feel less social pressure.
Thirdly, economic incentives can induce a change of persisting social norms. However, in the past the distribution of monetary incentives sometimes backfired because it sets a price to an action or attitude and therefore transfers the act from a normative behaviour to a market transaction. In the case of blood donations, paying compensation actually decreased participation as the altruistic motive was “out crowded” by the payment.
Finally, social change can occur through media campaigns. For this to happen, media outlets such as soap operas have to rely on cultural schemata that people can identify with. The program has to be so popular that it is well known in the individual’s reference network and its content needs to be discussed among peers.
In the case of Brazilian telenovelas, the aspect of media attention towards a topic combined with trendsetters in the form of main characters of popular shows seems to be a likely candidate to ignite social change. The main characters of the novelas are often stereotypical women of the Brazilian society with only one significant difference: the number of their children. Almost 93% of female main characters displayed in the most popular 7 and 8 pm novelas from 1965 to 1999 had no children or were mothers to only children. From 1970 to 1991, the fertility rate of women aged 40 to 45 fell from 6.4 to 4.9 children per woman. Interestingly, in the areas where Red Globo was introduced, the fertility of women younger than 25 was not at all affected, which suggests that the overall reduced fertility is not due to delayed first births but to more time between each child and earlier stopping of reproduction. The closer the women were to the female lead of the novela in terms of age, the stronger the effect, equal to two years of additional education for the women or one additional nurse per 1,000 inhabitants.
Does this prove the influence of TV on fertility? On one hand it can be argued that Brazilian novelas are a special case as TV in general and telenovelas especially are highly popular among all classes and age groups in Brazil. What is more, imported novelas, e.g. from Mexico, do not show such influence on social norms as they are perceived as culturally different and viewers cannot equally identify themselves with the characters. On the other hand, similar results were achieved all around the world concerning topics such as HIV/Aids, education or child marriage through edutainment like TV series, radio shows or village theatres. It has to be seen if this approach can hold its promise of a cheap and simple-to-implement policy tool.
 BusinessDictionary.com, 2017
 Bicchieri, C. (2017a), p.19
Bicchieri, C. (2017a). Diagnosing norms. In: C. Bicchieri, ed., Norms in the Wild, 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.1-50.
Bicchieri, C. (2017b). Tools for change. In: C. Bicchieri, ed., Norms in the Wild, 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.142-162.
BusinessDictionary.com. (2017). What is social norm? definition and meaning. [online] Available at: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/social-norm.html [Accessed 11 Jun. 2017].
Ferrara, E., Chong, A. and Duryea, S. (2012). Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 4(4), p.1-31.
Forbes.com. (2017). Brazilian Telenovela ‘Avenida Brasil’ Makes Billions By Mirroring Its Viewers’ Lives. [online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/andersonantunes/2012/10/19/brazilian-telenovela-makes-billions-by-mirroring-its-viewers-lives/#625f36bc44c0 [Accessed 11 Jun. 2017].