Gone Hollywood: Promoting health through popular culture

2 min read

Can a TV show change the way people think about a health issue?

Yes, it can—and it has. One of the most successful public health campaigns—the Designated Driver Campaign, spearheaded in the United States in the late 1980s by Harvard School of Public Health’s (HSPH) Center for Health Communication, led by Jay Winsten—got a major boost from being featured in story lines on shows including “Cheers” and “L.A. Law.”

There are plenty of other examples, according to Darnell Strom, an executive at the CAA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Creative Artists Agency, Hollywood’s leading talent agency. Introduced by Winsten to a standing-room-only crowd in HSPH’s Kresge G2 on February 4, 2014, Strom discussed how TV shows and movies have been able to profoundly impact public views on health issues such as wearing seat belts or smoking, social issues like same-sex marriage, and environmental issues like climate change.

Before TV and movies, the top popular culture influencers were books and theater, Strom said. An early example of a major influencer is the 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which at the time “was the second-most read book in the world—second only to the Bible,” Strom said. Depicting slaves under physical and psychological distress, the book further ignited the slavery debate, he said.