Ah, Saturday mornings… Fond childhood memories of waking up early in the morning only to plop back on the couch to watch hours of cartoon marathons. Fast forward a decade, and we find a new generation of digital kids that have grown accustomed to swiping tablets, downloading apps and surfing Youtube in all corners of the house.
Amidst the rapid explosion of technology, the link between learned behavior and the medium in which it is learned is being used as a tool to drive health behavior change. Through his enterprise, Chocolate Moose Media, acclaimed producer, director and humanitarian Firdaus Kharas produces for-profit television series and not-for-profit media campaigns, including nearly 2,400 animated behavior change videos in seven series. These animations are available free of charge, and have been shown in more than 150 countries and adapted into more than 90 languages, reaching more than a billion people. They address a wide range of issues, including anti-HIV/AIDS in The Three Amigos, malaria prevention in Buzz and Bite and domestic violence in No Excuses (all of which are available in Arabic). Nan and Lili and Hind and Hamza may be cute and humorous, but their stories are educational with a noticeable emphasis on children’s rights and needs. The latest addition to the series is called The Solar Campaign, which is about replacing in-home dirty fuel with solar lights.
Kharas is no newcomer to the domain of global health promotion. Prior to his present work in media content, he was Executive Director of the United Nations Association in Canada, where he was awarded a United Nations Peace Medal. His work has also been strongly supported by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. However, sustainable behavior change is difficult to accomplish as an individual, and even harder to promote in the general public. So what makes Kharas’ approach unique?
The key concept to this media platform is universality, says Kharas, which makes animation ideal for global outreach:
“Animation is the easiest way to reach large numbers of viewers. The clips vary in length and can be interactive (perfect for mobile platforms). This keeps the attention of the viewer and it’s easy for somebody to absorb the information. It overcomes educational limitations. It is easily translatable – so you don’t have lip sync problems, and you can create universal characters, as Disney and Pixar have shown throughout the years.”
The sense of unreality that Kharas captures makes animation effective in addressing some of the touchier subjects in health behavior change. He mentions one of his best-known campaigns, the Three Amigo series of HIV prevention videos, in which the three friends are talking about condoms. “If I had used real condoms,” he says, “I would never have gotten them on Iranian national television, where the Three Amigos was played.”
The animations also employ a light-hearted approach to their messages, showcasing a deviation from many health promotion campaigns that use fear to motivate change. Kharas reasons, “Almost all the campaigns on domestic violence that I’ve ever seen are coercive. They usually show a battered woman, and they essentially say, ‘Thou shalt not do this.’ I’m not sure that creates a lot of behavior change.” He believes that this particular approach can stigmatize a woman further and fails to address the abuser. “We really need to change the behavior of the abuser. So instead of bashing him on the head, I create humor as a means of communicating to him that he shouldn’t be doing that.” The reason the spots work, he says, is because the abuser is the butt of the joke.
Kharas isn’t alone in his approach to using animation as a tool for health promotion. Freej, created by thirty-six year old Mohammed Harib, focuses on celebrating the culture and traditions of the UAE told through the eyes of four grandmothers living in a secluded neighborhood in Dubai. It is the most popular cartoon show in the region since it debuted in 2006, and has picked up several international awards. Twenty-five year old Malik Nejer, a UAE national who received his education in Boston, continues to utilize his Youtube channel that has attracted millions of hits and 80,000 Twitter followers during the past three years. Nejer is a pioneer in 3D animation in the region.
Mr Kharas’ work is not limited to the Middle East. Commissioned by Teletoon, he is now responsible for production of the iconic television series George of the Jungle. The newest season of the series will be broadcast on international channels around the world, starting in late 2014.