Guest blog for Dev Comms Lab, published May 2018

Unless you’re living as a hermit in the Outer Hebrides then the chances are pop culture is shaping your thoughts, feelings and ideas about the world around you. Whether it’s television, film, sport, fashion or food, our shared mainstream culture plays a fundamental role in shaping our identity and guiding our attitudes and beliefs.

Over the past year I’ve been researching how pop culture has the potential to catalyse social change. My report for Unbound Philanthropy, Riding the Waves, explores influential case studies and makes recommendations about how we can harness the power of pop culture for social good. The report explores six key thematic areas: Representation – promoting diversity in our popular culture both on and off-screen; Authenticity – boosting the profile of credible, authentic voices; Normalisation – embedding messages in our social spheres over time; Narratives – acknowledging how messaging can educate and empathise; Novelty – appealing to trendsetters and tapping into the zeitgeist; and Relationships – building networks across and between sectors.

This area has great potential, but is not without its challenges and it’s important to be mindful of these when setting out to catalyse change in the pop culture space:

  • There is a risk of potential backlash when projects fail or are evaluated and deemed inauthentic or ineffective. For example, the UK government was heavily criticised for its plans to offer millions of pounds in development aid to the Ethopian girl band ‘Yegna’. The Daily Mail described it as a ‘blood-boiling waste of taxpayers money’ prompting thousands of shares and comments. But there are positive examples of novel and authentic pop culture content creating social change. A good example is the Creators for Change programme at YouTube. YouTube are supporting creators to develop social justice content on their channels. The Creators for Change Fellows and Ambassadors are tackling discrimination, boosting the profile of marginalised communities and connecting their many thousands of followers with issues like the refugee crisis, aid and development.
  • There is an understandable reticence from funders to engage in the heavily commercialised and flighty world of pop culture. Celebrity endorsement can seem fickle and there’s a risk of messages backfiring. Content creation is costly, time-consuming and can be ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. But, there are areas where funders can make a difference. Brokering relationships and funding time-poor creatives and voluntary sector activists to meet and connect is a good place to start. The Wellcome Trust is an excellent model for this way of working.
  • Creatives are understandably wary of politicisation and being hijacked by a cause. Rather than foisting opinions or messaging frames on creatives, it’s better to start by initiating conversations to share stories and build supportive relationships between the media & entertainment industry and the voluntary / aid sectors. The partnership between Radio 4’s The Archers and Women’s Aid navigating a domestic violence storyline is a great example of a collaborative working relationship between two different sectors. The partnership created a captivating radio programme and excellent public awareness about domestic violence and the crime of coercive control.

Given the extensive reach of pop culture to mainstream audiences, there is vast potential for catalysing social and environmental change. If you’re interested to find out more, do check out the following links and resources:

  • The Pop Culture Collaborative in the USA is a shining light in this emerging field. Their work is playing an influential role in strengthening connections and collaborations between US-based media and entertainment professionals and the voluntary and philanthropic sectors.
  • This recent Advocacy Iceberg podcast gives an overview of the Riding the Waves report. And do get in touch with Counterpoints Arts. They have just begun a new cross-sector pop culture programme, which will involve events, commissions and cross-sector collaborations over the next few years.