Spitfire Strategies

It’s Okay If You Don’t Like “This Is Us,” But It’s Important to Know Your Audience Might

Here’s the thing: People love movies and TV shows. Even if you limit your intake of pop culture to nibbling NPR and the New Yorker, know that others – including untapped target audiences you may desperately attempt to reach – are feasting more broadly. In fact, according to recent research from Nielsen, Americans insatiably gobble scenes on screens for approximately five hours daily. But, who cares? You should.

These industries have long histories of reflecting our society’s strengths and weaknesses – granted, with varying degrees of accuracy or inaccuracy. So, whether you’re paying attention or not, audiences are hearing about your organization’s issue in stories served up live and streaming on a 24-hour basis. That’s true whether you’re working on racial/ethnic inequalities and/or health.

Image Credit: Johnny Tarajosu

Here’s what this looks like in action. To promote science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) education in Atlanta, we worked with a local school and its partners to host five screenings of the film “Hidden Figures” for 1,400 school children, their families and others in the community. We developed and disseminated companion materials that tied the film to initiatives to promote STEAM education. We also assisted with planning the screening event and tapped our contacts to secure two signed copies of the book “Hidden Figures” – a regular version and a youth version. The youth version will remain at one of the school libraries, and we’ve already received word that demand is so high that the school has secured additional copies of the book.

Similar to how organizations acquired a taste for integrating social media into their arsenal of strategic communications, they are doing the same with pop culture. So, what’s an organization to do if it lacks the resources or know-how to take advantage of current storylines?

Here, let us help.

AndACTION connects foundations, nonprofits and others to the film and television industries. We give you the inside scoop on upcoming storylines from our Hollywood connections. We’ll also help you leverage these opportunities by developing strategic communications that match your organization’s mission. For assistance, get in touch with us by emailing info@andaction.org. In the meantime, below are a few tips we’ve picked up from our work with nonprofits and research about how organizations leverage pop culture.

  • Stay timely: Give your audiences a reason to turn their attention to you. When a show like “This Is Us” has a season premiere or finale, write an op-ed tied to one of the shows themes – alcoholism, obesity, cancer, interracial adoption or others.
  • Use real-world tie-ins: On “Scandal,” when a woman like Mellie Grant runs for office, organizations that support women in public leadership can organize viewing parties that double as information sessions. Disseminate leaflets that explain which seats in local government will soon be vacant, and tell attendees how to get on the ballot.
  • Be authentic: You are your best self when you’re being you. Same for your organization. No show is too small, too silly, too serious or too much of a “guilty pleasure.”
  • Partner with others: Don’t go at it alone. Did you know, when MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show” co-host Max Joseph absented himself to film a movie, MTV offered his spot to a famous YouTuber Tyler Oakley. MTV also promoted initiatives that support mental health for young people — including mtvU and The Jed Foundation’s Half of Us. In fact, among our case studies, you’ll notice we often work with more than one group at a time.
  • Use more than one tactic: Photo Twitter chats. Screenings. Opportunities to leverage pop culture are endless. Organizations often use more than one at a time, such as organizing a screening and developing a study guide.
  • Make the most of existing resources: Set up Google alerts to stay on top of pop culture mentions of your organization’s priority issues. For “This Is Us” – yes, I’m using the show as an example twice in one piece because I love it that much! – health organizations could track the show’s character names in combination with the issues the show addresses. Also, don’t forget, your organization’s greatest pop culture resource may be sitting right next to you. Perhaps your favorite colleague binge-watched Stranger Things and found ways to leverage the show to not only correct inaccurate depictions of your organization but also to promote women in science.

For more information on how to build great campaigns and make pop culture work for you, check out our report with the Ford Foundation titled, “Pop Culture Works for Social Change.”

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- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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