Soap Operas Are Always Ahead of the Curve

There was some discussion recently of product placement, and whether we’re going to see a lot more of it if networks cut back on commercial time (or even if they don’t, and just want to make some extra money). As Gail Collins notes in her column in the New York Times, we’ve already been seeing this on soap operas for a while:

Earlier this month, the ABC soap opera “One Life to Live” featured a scene in which Todd, the publisher of the local newspaper, and Tea, his lawyer, had a conversation about Todd’s legal problems, which ranged from being a murder suspect to being on trial for kidnapping.

Tea: I warmed up some soup for you. I don’t want you to go to the police station on an empty stomach.

(Already we are on new ground since characters in soap operas do not, as a rule, ever eat anything.)

Todd: What kind of soup is this?

Tea: It’s Campbell’s. It’s healthy, good for your heart.

Todd: (spooning away) Yeah, it’s good.

…. For some time now, characters in daytime dramas have been taking time from their normal activities, like having amnesia, to engage in animated discussions about the sponsors’ products. The ABC soap actors spent February talking about how Campbell’s soup and other assorted products are good for your heart. (And tasty, too!)

Lynn Leahey, the editorial director of Soap Opera Digest, pointed to an episode of “As the World Turns” in which Margo needed to get her hair fixed before a date with her husband (don’t ask) and reached for a bottle of Nice ’n Easy Root Touch-Up. “I feel like I took off 10 years in 10 minutes!” she exclaimed.

Now, soap operas are always one step ahead of prime-time programs when it comes to content. Any “shocking” issue that turns up on prime-time television has already turned up on a daytime soap. And of course prime-time is constantly playing catch-up with soaps when it comes to storytelling: serialization, shocking deaths, the use of a large ensemble cast where any cast member is expendable, elaborate mythology; all these things became commonplace in prime time only after they’d been commonplace in soaps for decades. So if soap operas are ratcheting up product placement to a new level, we can expect to see it in prime-time eventually.

Not that product placement is new, but I don’t recall characters openly plugging the product by name, at least not so casually. Only a few years ago, it was fairly controversial when Revlon paid to have its product plugged in a storyline on All My Children. Now the same thing happens on a daily basis and nobody seems to care any more.

Of course, product placement is built into the form of soap operas; the very name comes from one of the products that they were intended to sell. (But then product placement is built into all of broadcast TV and radio, not just soaps.) Some of the early radio soaps apparently experimented with integrating the commercials into the story, because the listeners complained that the commercial breaks were too distracting. This didn’t catch on, but it was tried. That’s not the same thing, however, as having product placement and constant commercial breaks.

Actually, radio is a good place to look to for lessons about how to do effective product placement, since a lot of shows did try to find a spot to do at least one commercial that wouldn’t interrupt the flow of the story. The most famous example was on Fibber McGee and Molly (the radio show with the guy who opened the closet door and all the junk came falling out every week); the show’s announcer was portrayed as one of the McGee’s neighbours, and every week he would turn up, ostensibly to comment on the problem of the week, but he’d always managed to turn the issue into an excuse to plug the sponsor’s product, much to McGee’s frustration.