What MTV’s 16 And Pregnant can teach us about campaigning

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that MTV wins wars; that cultural colonization, for better or worse, is far more effective than any bomb. Well now it looks like MTV is also winning metaphorical wars too.

A new study on MTV’s show 16 And Pregnant attributes part of the decline in teen pregnancies in the US to the show. When looking at the data on teen pregnancies they found that the decline corresponded not only with how many people were watching the show but also with Google search data and the number of tweets about the show. Their estimates show that 16 And Pregnant is responsible for a 5.7% drop in teen pregnancy in the US.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding that really surprising. I mean, if I’m being honest, I probably would have guessed that the show would have inadvertently encouraged teenage pregnancy or thought that if it did have an impact it wouldn’t have been so strong. Mea culpa I guess. I obviously didn’t have enough faith in MTV or teenagers.

So that got me thinking, what exactly can we learn from this show? MTV, knowingly or not, is running one of the most successful awareness campaigns in the US.

(Before we get started though let me just say that I am by no means an avid fan. I watched 2 episodes after hearing about this study and that’s what my conclusions are based on. Take from that what you will.)

  1. It tells a (voyeuristic) story: first and foremost the show is meant to entertain and the message gets snuck in. It’s not that the message is secondary to the story, it’s that the story and the message are integrated. Presenting the message this way keeps the viewer interested enough to receive your message.
  2. It shows consequences: not only does it show the consequences of teen pregnancy (or at least some of them) but it presents them in a way that allows the audience to imagine themselves in that situation and empathize.
  3. The illustrates the actions needed to avoid those consequences: those actions are also small and actionable. Now, it’s easier to avoid getting knocked up than it is to stop climate change but the important point is to show people what they can do.
  4. The impact of the actions you can take are apparent: the final point, and again perhaps a bit easier to illustrate with teen pregnancy than other issues, is that you know the impact of the actions you can take. It’s easier to follow through with something if you know what effect it will have.