From Blue Planet to RuPaul’s Drag Race – how content can change the world

In 2017, one hour of television shifted the way Britain — and the world — saw plastic pollution. After decades of warnings, a single episode of Blue Planet II seemingly led to a cascade of changes; the BBC and the Houses of Parliament banned single-use plastics, 60% more people switched to reusable water bottles, and the supermarket chain Waitrose saw an 800% increase in customer queries about plastics.

Images of bottlenose dolphins playing with plastic bags, and sea turtles struggling to escape plastic nets, became so iconic that the narrative-shifts they helped create have been dubbed ‘the Blue Planet effect’. It’s one example of how what we watch can change what we talk about; Michaela Coel’s critically acclaimed I May Destroy You achieved similar success in opening up new conversations about sex and consent 


increase in customer queries about plastics seen by Waitrose following the broadcast of Blue Planet II

But for every Blue Planet II or I May Destroy You, there are countless other attempts at social impact, public engagement, or behaviour change that fail. So why does some content help change the world, but much of it barely even entertains us? Can we explain the successes and failures, or is it just dumb luck?  

OKRE’s aim is to expand people’s understanding of the world through opening knowledge across research and entertainment. We believe that there’s order in the apparent chaos of how culture, society, and individuals respond to what we see on our screens – and we’d love to share some of our insights from over a decade’s worth of our previous work, including supporting TV, movies and games at the Wellcome Trust 

It’s how you feel, not what you know

We believe there are three ways people learn about the world – through research, through life experiences, and through the content we consume.  

‘Research’ could involve looking up your health condition online or asking a professional. ‘Experience’ would be your unique life events and context. And ‘content’ might be some depictions of your condition that you happen to come across in a movie or on social media. 

At OKRE, a key part of our work is to catalyse the creation of entertainment that benefits from alternative insights from research and lived experience. Our belief is that entertainment can change us in three ways – through our:   

  • perceptions; how we feel, or relate to the world 
  • knowledge and information; what we (think we) know and believe, and 
  • behaviour; what we do, as a result. 

When social institutions or researchers want to work with entertainment, it’s often because they want to change behaviour. Organisations commission content so we might eat more healthily, make better financial decisions, or drink more responsibly.

But there’s a faulty (yet seductive) model sitting at the heart of much of this content; that if we simply give people more knowledge, behaviour will change. This underestimates the power of perceptions — and of what entertainment can do especially well.

Most people who watched Blue Planet II already knew that plastic was a pollutant, that throw-away water bottles were unsustainable, and that what we do to the oceans isn’t great. Few of us came away from David Attenborough’s commentary with a wealth of statistics about the plastics problem, or any sense of the metric tonnage of bags and bottles that have been dumped into the seas.

Instead, Blue Planet II showcased the power of content to change our perception of the problem; not what we know about it, but what we feel about it. One of the UK’s most senior politicians at the time, Michael Gove, tweeted to say he felt ‘haunted’ by the show.

The fact that Gove was watching along does point to one of Blue Planet II’s limitations — epic, long-form natural history programmes appeal to some demographics, yet will leave behind others. The show’s success might also reinforce the faulty assumption that only issue-led documentaries can create this kind of change. Other media and genres can be just as powerful — if not more so.  

Nevertheless, Blue Planet II serves as an iconic example because it succeeded in shifting our perceptions. Audiences tuned in expecting to see virgin oceanscapes, untouched by pollution and human activity — an expectation cultivated through decades of creative choices by natural history film-makers. It was through meeting this expectation initially, but then defying it, that they shocked so many of us. 

How entertainment can change the world

That’s why OKRE’s work tends to focus on perceptions, rather than knowledge or behaviour. Each of them are important, but perceptions tend to have less attention paid to them, despite their ability to catalyse the other two. This makes them more of an untapped opportunity.

Channel 4’s “The Secret Life of 4-Year Olds” was an instructive case study of how this works in practice. The show was ostensibly a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the inner world of nursery children, but vital to the programme’s success was the candid, unscripted, on-screen commentary of psychologists and neuroscientists, who set-up the on-screen study and watched along with the audience.

The show’s producers achieved something innovative: in a heartstring-tugging show about toddlers, a traditional ‘talking head’ child-development researcher would have been jarring for audiences. But by subtly inviting viewers to join in over the scientists’ shoulders, we watched alongside the experts who were still relatable human beings. We laughed at the same things as the scientists, and by identifying with them we were brought in on the research-informed content. 

Or take RuPaul’s Drag Race, which succeeds in engaging us with LGBTQ+ issues by first understanding audience expectations, and then subverting them. Producers understand that we tune in to be entertained, not for a separate history lesson — so this content is delivered as part of the show’s core offering, informed by research but also by RuPaul and the cast’s lived experience.

Today, audiences have unprecedented freedom to consume only what interests them most — to the extent that half of us now use social media as a source for news, according to an OFCOM study. We believe people nearly always prefer media that they expect to engage them emotionally — so ‘entertainment’ now simply means whatever people choose to consume, rather than what we’re obliged to.

We went to Blue Planet II to be inspired, awed, or moved. We went to Secret Life for cuteness and smiles, not neuroscience, and we don’t watch RuPaul for social history. The lesson is that pro-social content has to meet an audience’s emotional needs in order to succeed. That’s why research, entertainment and lived experience need to be combined.

OKRE's Approach

We work by connecting those three ways of understanding the world, to encourage collaborations that shift perceptions and expand understanding. From years of working with people from across many industries, we’ve identified three key ways to enable these exchanges of ideas, methods, and creativity:

  • By being a global hub, making it easier for people from different backgrounds and traditions to meet, spark, and work together, we help them collaborate — including via our OKRE Development Rooms, Salons, and Retreats.
  • Helping people see the value of collaboration, by telling and sharing the stories of how it goes right, including in our Content Hub. By doing this, we help people across our industries value the diversity of thinking that led to those stories — leading to more collaboration.
  • De-risking and stimulating innovations at the nexus of research and entertainment. Check out our Funding Opportunities to see this in practice.


These outcomes form part of our Theory of Change, a foundational piece of work for OKRE which spells out how our work creates the kind of industry-wide changes that we think are both possible and necessary. And while this blog has focused on the implications for entertainment, we’re just as passionate about how research benefits from collaboration, too.  

As we continue on that mission, we want you to be involved. Whether you work in the entertainment industries, research or social impact, we want you to join us so we can create stronger links between these sectors and together, create real change. We want audiences and communities to tell us how entertainment can better understand and represent them, so we can focus our efforts. And we are looking for funders who believe in our purpose, to support our ambitious plans.  

Get in touch, and see what we can do for you.