From product placement to public service placement

Notice to Readers: The Nudge blog will not be blogging on its usual panoply of topics for the rest of the week. Look for our return and new posts next week. Until then…

Watch out! Your favorite TV show may be subtly trying to teach you something.

In order to document how well viewers learn health information from entertainment television, the (Kaiser Family) Foundation worked with writers at Grey’s Anatomy to embed a health message in an episode, and then surveyed viewers on the topic before and after the episode aired. The storyline involved an HIV positive pregnant woman who learns that with the proper treatment, she has a 98% chance of having a healthy baby.

The study found that the audience’s awareness of this information increased by 46 percentage points (from 15% to 61%), a four-fold increase among all viewers. This translates to more than eight million people learning correct information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates from watching the episode.

But how long did they remember that correct information? The full report is here.

When it comes to other kinds of medical information, you can count on television to aggravate other behavioral biases, particularly the availability bias. The most common health topic found in top-rated TV shows is an “unusual illness or disease” (Housephiles know this all too well). These strange diseases appear more than four times as often as heart disease, five times as often as cancer, and 20 times as often as diabetes, “all more prevalent medical conditions among the American populace,” according to Kaiser.

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