Brazilian Telenovelas and Social Merchandising

By Tania Cantrell Rosas-Moreno

A Brazilian family enjoys an episode of Faustão
A Brazilian family enjoys an episode of Faustão

 

If only watching TV shows were as simple as it seems. Rather than just “unplugging” from the world and enjoying some mental distractions from life’s stresses, television audiences—especially Brazilian-telenovela audiences—position themselves as sponges for message and/or product absorption. Huge Brazilian audiences, as many as 73 percent of the 95 percent of Brazilians who confess they watch TV, do so daily for about four hours. That’s a lot of people who open themselves up for a lot of primetime viewing daily to certain powers-that-be and (un)willingly participate in entertainment-education.

Entertainment-education involves using entertainment programming to promote a prosocial message. As I noted in my book News and Novela in Brazilian Media: Fact, Fiction, and National Identity (2014), entertainment-education is a strategic method brilliantly developed by Miguel Sabido to influence public opinion. Its purpose is to design and implement media messages both to entertain and educate, with the end goals of increasing audience members’ knowledge about an educational issue, creating social norms and changing behavior.

Seems kind of ambitious, at least by U.S. standards, to claim that entertainment-based television programming could really do much to change behavior. But, this technique, combined with its offspring, social merchandising, which will be further discussed, have had traceable, almost unbelievable effects on an entire nation. And this, for over six decades.

Telenovelas didn’t begin in Brazil. They actually date back to radio soap opera shows developed in the United States by companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor and Gamble. First and primarily Cuba, followed by other Latin American countries, adapted and adopted the soap genre, initially hugely popular among female audiences, transforming it into the telenovela, supplying artists, technical personnel and storylines or scripts. So, over time, Latin Americans¾ women, men, children, adults, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, black, white ¾have loved their telenovelas, and they remain a staple of the Latin American media diet today. One could fiercely argue, however, that the basic telenovela recipe was perfected in Brazil.

A telenovela tends to be a Cinder(f)ella-like, rags-to-riches-type mini-series, or a six-days-per-week, one-hour program with a pronounced beginning, ongoing plot development throughout its six-to eight-month duration, and a definitive end. While other Latin American nations produce and export telenovelas, few media products have been as successful (inter)nationally as Brazilian telenovelas, particularly those of TV Globo.

TV Globo was launched on April 26, 1965 by media proprietor Roberto Marinho. Owned by his three sons since his passing in 2003 at the age of 98, TV Globo has been and remains Latin America’s largest commercial television network and the world’s second largest, only behind the United States’ ABC (see http://www.sportspromedia.com/magazine_features/globo_gathering_how_brazils_biggest_broadcaster_is_gearing_up_for_rio_2016). Elsewhere in Latin America, big media companies are in the midst of real-life dramas: Argentina’s Grupo Clarín is being carved up by the government, and Mexico is trying to make Televisa slim down. But, for various reasons, Brazil’s government is more accomodating toward media owners, perhaps by default allowing TV Globo to continue its dominance. This might be related to Marinho’s friendly history with the Brazilian government during turbulent times, coupled with TV Globo’s clever marketing strategies. But that’s a conversation for another time.

As they air for six days per week, Brazilian telenovelas occupy three time slots. Again, as I note in my book, the first, at 6 p.m., the “novela das seis,” is usually family-oriented and romantic with little-to-no violence or bad language and plenty of religious and historic themes. The second, at 7 p.m., the “novela das sete,” tends to be comedic and romance-filled with more implicit sex and action. The third, at 9 p.m. following the evening news, is known traditionally as the 8 p.m. telenovela or “novela das oito,” and more recently as the “novela das nove” or 9 p.m. telenovela. The most widely seen and the meatiest, these late shows explore various (mature) themes, and tusually have more episodes or last longer than the other two. This is the most competitive time slot.

All Brazilian telenovelas are “open works”; although designated writers begin the storyline and introduce the main characters and themes, telenovelas become co-authored after only a few weeks of production through widespread input. This means that during production telenovela creators incorporate perspectives and events from various sources ¾ fans, the press, religious organizations, focus groups and other research bases¾ to make the telenovela so current and realistic that it blurs fact and fiction. This blend enables these shows to be powerful, audience-and-society co-authored education-entertainment conduits, each with its own share of social merchandising.

Stretching well beyond what we in the United States would recognize as product placement, social merchandising involves presenting a product, service and/or issue of social relevance, with well-defined educational purposes, before consumers in an attempt to influence their habits of consumption and thinking. It is systematic and intentional. As Cacilda Rêgo emphasizes in her works, message placement is far more effective and efficient than traditional advertising, since insertions must communicate something about the value and the person for whom the product was designed.

Consider, for instance, that TV Globo’s license department had six lines of products associated with Avenida Brasil (2012), the most-commercially successful telenovela in Brazilian history, selling more than fifty different items. TV Globo’s network of affiliated stations made more than five hundred advertisement deals, skyrocketing the total earnings of Avenida Brasil to an anticipated R$ 2 billion ($1 billion). This is an unprecedented sum not only in Brazil but in all of Latin America. And considering that the telenovela's 180-episode season cost around $45 million to make, that’s a remarkable profit margin (Antunes, A., Forbes, Oct. 19, 2012, “Brazilian telenovela ‘Avenida Brasil’ makes billions by mirroring its viewers’ lives.”), especially considering that telenovelas have practiced product placement for years to offset production costs.

So, knowing the value of a product or idea and the person for whom each is designed to effectively sell anything requires serious research. To that end, in the late 1990s TV Globo created its own merchandising agency, Apoio, to insert products and ideas into the story per interaction studies. Consider, for example, these TV Globo telenovelas that aired in 2000 and their main issues:

 

Telenovela

Period of exhibition (in 2000)

Nr. of insertions

Main issues

Malhação
("Working Out")

Year-long

346

Teen pregnancy; traffic safety education; HIV/STDs prevention; diversity; drug abuse; etc.

Vila Madalena
("Madalena Village")

4 months

69

Prisoners' rights; gender bias; right to education; breastfeeding; etc.

Uga Uga
("Uga Uga")

7 months

72

Gender relations; alcoholism; risks of self-medication; etc.

Laços de Família
("Family Ties")

6 months

93

Importance of blood and organ donation, including bone marrow; support to volunteerism; responsible parenthood; safe sex; etc.

Total

-

580

-

Information courtesy of Organizações Globo

 

Note that some of these issues are socially responsible. And they are purposely so. In fact, since 1995, about 12,000 socio-educational content scenes have been broadcast just in TV Globo’s telenovelas (see http://redeglobo.globo.com/Portal/institucional/foldereletronico/ingles/g_rs_merchandising_social.html). So, while social merchandising through telenovelas has market strategies and profits as its main objectives, aiming for commercial success, it also serves as a public service by a business claiming to be socially responsible. And TV Globo has won international awards for doing so. Whether or not social responsibility brings in revenue directly is questionable. However, it has served as yet another way to provide a captive audience, leading to profitability in other ways. And the effects have been incredibly successful.

Short-term successes stemming from telenovela exposure might be product-related, like buying items associated with a particular telenovela, such as clothing, music or other paraphernalia, as noted with Avenida Brasil. These successes are extremely easy to track in terms of monetary value. Other successes, which could be idea related, require more clever tracking methods. But, those successes could be tied to organizations reporting increases in folks getting tested for an STD, visiting a location to report domestic abuse, or signing up for a donor registry, once that topic has aired in a telenovela.

For example: when Laços de Família (Family Ties) aired, part of its social merchandising included information on bone marrow transplants. As the telenovela neared conclusion, the average number of registrations on the Registro Nacional de Doadores de Medula Óssea (National Register of Bone Marrow Donors) began to increase, rising from 20 to 900 per month, a significant increase of about 4,400%. Later, TV Globo used scenes from the telenovela—like when the character Camila was shown shaving her head while undergoing treatment for leukemia—in a Globo campaign to encourage marrow donation. That award-winning campaign had long-term and ongoing effects; studies have shown that the numbers of registered donors increased since the broadcast, with 525,000 people having registered by October 2007 (see http://www.intercom.org.br/papers/regionais/nordeste2010/resumos/R23-1520-2.pdf).

Another example of social merchandising success is how Brazilian familial sizes have decreased over time to mirror telenovela family audiences, as many researchers have documented. This is critical, given that Brazil is the world’s largest Roman Catholic nation. In addition, the 2010 Census found more Afro-Brazilians self-identifying as black than at any other time in Brazilian history. This resulted in the suspected Afro-Brazilian majority population actually being recorded as the majority rather than the minority it had been documented to be. This upheaval in national identity followed a series of television events, beginning with the airing of TV Globo’s hit telenovela Duas Caras (Two Faces or Two Faced, 2007-2008), which featured TV Globo’s first Afro-Brazilian hero.

TV Globo’s vice president, José Roberto Marinho, has claimed decisively that Brazilian television has pioneered the practice of social merchandising. He has also said that the Brazilian telenovela is a good example of how a media company can contribute to social development without giving up the playfulness of its entertainment programs. A key to that playfulness is a type of media resonance, when themes or ideas or products presented in telenovelas are included in other (entertainment) programming.

In other words, social merchandising occurring as part of the telenovela plot will have elements of the narrative reinforced through other entertainment shows, like the broadcast, since 1989, of the Sunday afternoon program Domingão do Faustão. In doing so, as TV Globo purports, characters act as speakers of concepts and attitudes, and important messages are passed through privileged channels of communication with the audience.

However, social merchandising also has a dark side; while it can be used to educate the public and move members to good actions, it can be a dangerous tool of societal manipulation and control (see http://shasu.yolasite.com/resources/Merchandising%20em%20telenovelas.pdf). Since social merchandising can tamper with audience morals, ethics must be a huge consideration. This is particularly necessary, as sometimes social merchandising effects backfire, or fail to go as planned.

For instance, in their hot-off-the-academic-press journal article published in the International Journal of Communication, Samantha Nogueira Joyce and Monica Martinez analyzed two TV Globo telenovelas—Mulheres Apaixonadas (Women in Love, 2003) and A Regra do Jogo (Rules of the Game, 2015)—and their use of social merchandising about domestic violence. Their conclusion is that although the story lines in each program might seem progressive and empowering to women who seek to leave their abusers, they spoil it by suggesting that a woman’s way out is usually through a new romantic relationship. Since the insertion of domestic violence social merchandising failed, the depiction of domestic violence, instead, becomes spectacle. Further, domestic violence was portrayed solely as a women’s issue and not a domestic one involving power. So, as I understand it, while viewers might have been motivated to visit domestic abuse centers and report issues of domestic abuse in the short term, long term effects could be considered more harmful; they tend toward reinforcing the machismo that has been disempowering to women over time, since it’s been prominent in Brazilian, in particular, and Latin American, in general, societies.

Social merchandising is not flawless. But it is extremely effective. And the main platform for its existence has been the Brazilian telenovela. While there might be instances of plans run amok, the long-term (good) effects are simply undeniable; a national identity mirroring elements of Brazilian telenovelas has been forged. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: Brazilian telenovelas have pioneered social change through social merchandising, stretching what might be a fictional reality to a factual one. At least in the Brazilian case, Brazilians have become what they’ve watched—noting that that watching has included their contributions—over time.

 

 

Tania Cantrell Rosas-Moreno is an associate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland who also teaches in the Latin American Latino Studies Program. Her research focuses on international communication, political communication and diversity issues with a special interest in Brazil. Her most recent book is News and Novela in Brazilian Media: Fact, Fiction, and National Identity.