In this first survey of the portrayal of a wide variety of health‐related behaviours on popular soap operas set and broadcast in the UK, we recorded 959 portrayals of the behaviours of interest (30 per programming hour). Of the 11 behaviours of interest, alcohol‐related behaviours were the most commonly portrayed (on 619 occasions, or 19.3 per programming hour). There were no portrayals in the sample of four behaviours of interest: driving soon after drinking, drinking during pregnancy, smoking during pregnancy and smoking around children.
We have considered only a limited number of health‐related behaviours in this analysis. In particular, we did not include sexual health‐related behaviours or use of illegal substances. However, the four behavioural areas (alcohol consumption, smoking, food choice and physical activity) and the specific behaviours focused on were identified using current UK government recommendations12,13,14,15
and so were of current policy relevance.
As it was occasionally difficult to categorise some behaviours—particularly food and drink—we excluded a number of observed behaviours. As these behaviours were not recorded, we do not have data on how frequently this occurred. This necessarily limits the comprehensiveness of our data. However, it is unlikely that food and drink that could not be identified by a dedicated researcher would be identified by a casual viewer or influence their beliefs and behaviours. It is not clear how more comprehensive identification of behaviours could be achieved.
Our data also lack details on the context of behaviours. Although we initially attempted to collect contextual data on characters, we found even estimating characters' ages difficult. Summarising more detailed information on the exact circumstances of almost 1000 behaviours would have been very challenging. However, the data presented here were intended to be descriptive only. More detailed data, perhaps collected in different ways, would be necessary to test specific hypotheses.
What is already known
- Soap operas are popular in the UK.
- There is evidence that health‐related story lines on popular television programmes can lead to increased viewer knowledge and behaviour change.
- The relative frequency of portrayal of different health behaviours on UK soap operas is not currently known.
What this paper adds
- This paper provides baseline data on the relative frequency of portrayal of 11 policy‐relevant health‐related behaviours.
- Of the 11 behaviours of interest, alcohol‐related behaviours were the most commonly portrayed.
- No instances of four behaviours of interest were observed: driving soon after drinking, drinking during pregnancy, smoking during pregnancy or smoking around children.
- Engaging the makers of popular television programmes in a health promotion agenda may be a fruitful method of shaping behavioural norms and promoting healthy behaviours.
Our data were collected over 4 weeks in spring 2005. The behaviours portrayed may, therefore, have been influenced by dominant story lines and seasonal variations in behaviours. In addition, we only included UK‐based television soap operas broadcast on terrestrial channels. However, in keeping with work from the UK and elsewhere, we found that the frequency of alcohol‐related behaviours was high8,9,10
and the frequency of smoking in the sample was comparable to previous data from the US.11
These similarities suggest that, despite their limitations, our data may be generalisable.
All the soap operas included in the sample include a pub or bar, as well as a café—providing common areas where characters can interact. This may explain the preponderance of alcohol‐related behaviours and unhealthy foods, and it is possible that the formulaic nature of British soap operas goes hand in hand with the portrayal of unhealthy behaviours.
There was some indication that behaviours portrayed varied according to the target audience of the different soap operas included. For example, Hollyoaks is primarily aimed at a younger audience and there was a higher frequency of portrayal of healthy food and physical activity in this programme.
Given the evidence that behaviours portrayed on television may affect both the knowledge and behaviour of viewers,2,3,4,5,6,7
the overall frequency of “unhealthy” behaviours in our sample, such as drinking and “unhealthy” food choice, is of concern. Programme makers may feel, with some justification,16
that unhealthy behaviours are the norm in the population groups they are portraying. However, popular television serials offer the chance to portray healthier behaviours as normal and so help change attitudes, shape behavioural norms and, ultimately, change behaviour among the viewing public. Engaging the makers of these programmes in a health promotion agenda may be a fruitful method of promoting healthy behaviours among a wide cross‐section of the population—perhaps by the establishment of voluntary liaison with public health policy makers.