An Introduction to Social Impact Entertainment

By: William Nix
May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

“Story has the ability to build bridges of understanding, tolerance, and respect, helping us to make sense of our lives and the world around us. The time has come to use the infinite power of story, as expressed through entertainment and performing arts, to inspire social impact.”

Teri Schwartz, former dean of the UCLA Theater, Film, and Television school.

What is Social Impact Entertainment?

Social Impact Entertainment (SIE) harnesses the empathic power of storytelling to create content that inspires positive social and environmental impact while also providing great entertainment value. SIE can be produced for the full spectrum of entertainment mediums, including film (fiction and documentary), television, theater, music, digital content (including videogames), and immersive entertainment (including virtual/augmented reality experiences).

While SIE can still reasonably be categorized as a newly trending focus, there is no doubt of its impact on mainstream society. The rise of the “conscious consumer,” shoppers who patronize companies that reflect their social and environmental values, has been paralleled by the rise of the “conscious viewer” who demands entertainment that also addresses issues of concern. Audiences are showing greater interest in the content that spotlights the challenges of the world and works towards positively impacting those challenges.

How Social Impact Entertainment Works

“Humans have always used narrative . . . passing on essential, accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next, to aid with their very survival.”

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Stories have always been one of humanity’s best tools to pass along information. Though today’s mass media is a long way from oration by firelight, the concept remains the same. A well-crafted story is a potent capsule of knowledge, capable of generating empathy, seeding new perspectives, and ultimately reshaping culture.

SIE employs this influential power strategically, creating content that simultaneously entertains and promotes a positive societal or environmental impact. The altruistic nature of the content may be straightforward or quite subtle.

This graphic from the Impact Field Guide provides a helpful breakdown of the different approaches SIE can take, depending on the context and history of the issue at hand. From small budget documentaries to summer blockbusters, thoughtfully developed entertainment can inspire perception shifts and actionable change.

Examples of Social Impact Entertainment

SIE can be used to thrust little-known issues onto the global stage. For example, the dolphin hunting practices of one Japanese town became an international discussion after being spotlighted in the award-winning 2009 documentary The Cove.

But what about more popular and polarized issues like climate change and the increasing challenges that come from a warming planet? What other entertainment examples come to mind?

No doubt documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Before the Flood immediately come to mind as productions that received widespread attention. But you can also include the 2004 blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow, whose plot features a climate change-driven superstorm that wreaks havoc all over the world, as an example that spotlights the threat of unchecked atmospheric emissions. Studies conducted before and after the film’s release confirmed that viewers of this action movie had higher levels of concern about climate change than non-watchers and thought climate change more capable of future catastrophic effects.

When asked about the film’s potential, Michael Molitor, the primary science consultant for The Day After Tomorrow, predicted, “This film could do more in helping us move in the right direction than all the scientific work and all the U.S. Congressional testimonies put together.”

The Business Case for Social Impact Entertainment

There is an incorrect assumption that aligning a company or investment with a cause can only be done at the sacrifice of profitability. This is a theory that LOHAS consistently rebukes in each of our practice disciplines, including Social Impact Entertainment.

The evolution and expansion of entertainment technology have made it easier than ever to get impactful stories in front of an audience on multiple media platforms and in a wide range of genres and forms of artistic expression. It also means that it is that much simpler for a target audience to find content that prioritizes the exact causes they care about.

Another benefit is Social Impact Entertainment’s ability to develop audience loyalty. Loyal viewers are a crucial commodity with today’s diversity of platforms and deluge of on-demand content. Social Impact Entertainment builds enduring relationships with its audiences and generates effective returns, all while promoting positive social change. The entertainment and media industries are built on the triple-bottom-line.

Most importantly, parties seeking to evoke societal change (traditional investors, foundations, etc.) are missing one of the sharpest arrows in the quiver if they fail to take advantage of the power of film and television (or other mediums) in educating and engaging audiences and inspiring action. The attractive financial returns (when opportunities are navigated correctly) are also a benefit and one that need not be left only to conventional studios.

If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of investing in Social Impact Entertainment, we’d be happy to have a more personalized discussion. Never underestimate the power of entertainment as a vehicle for social change.

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