January 14, 2008
As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VI: Product Placement and Transmedia Storytelling

Product Placement and Soap Operas

If soap operas shift to a brand-management strategy that gives greater value to depth of fan engagement and the social activities surrounding the consumption of the official texts of these shows, new revenue sources become more plausible, as I look at in the fourth chapter of my Master's thesis.

The deeper engagement that the immersive story worlds of soap operas encourage also lead to revenue models that value engagement in a way that commercials based on Nielsen ratings do not. While the first forms of product placement can be found in literature, product placement in broadcast was launched simultaneously with commercial radio content, particularly driven by corporate sponsorship that involved prominent product mentions on the air. Nowhere in radio drama was the product more closely married to the show than in the soap opera, however, a genre in which product placement was part of its name.

Soap operas have experimented with product placement to varying degrees, ranging from the clever and the natural to the forced and the atrocious. Many soap viewers have demonstrated a tolerance for product placement in their shows, as long as they are logical and do not disrupt the creative flow of a show. Inserting product mentions in dialogue should only be done with extreme care, for instance (as was found with fans' anger toward a Nice ‘N Easy placement in a storyline with Margo Hughes and Lisa Grimaldi on ATWT), and great care should be taken in associating a brand with a particular character, as with many fans disputing that ATWT's Barbara Ryan would shop at Kohl's.

The best chance for these shows to move forward with more effective use of product placement is to iron out the differences between the creative team, the producers, the advertisers, and the networks to create a streamlined way to integrate relevant products into organic product placements on the show, without interfering with the creative autonomy of the narrative. Viewers are actively interested in seeing the shows remain profitable, since higher profits mean better sets, more funding for the cast, and a greater chance for the continuation of these "narratives without end."

Transmedia Storytelling on Soap Operas

As digital technologies become increasingly important in the lives of consumers, most television producers are looking at how to utilize various new platforms to aid in telling a story. In the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, based on the terminology used by Dr. Henry Jenkins, we call this type of narrative transmedia storytelling, which uses multiple platforms to aid in telling a central narrative. Immersive story worlds like the text of a soap opera are particularly ripe for transmedia storytelling because of the depth of the narrative world, with more characters and history than could ever be fully exploited through one product.

Soap operas have a long history of spin-offs, character crossovers, and book releases based on their shows. In recent years, shows have been experimenting with books released in printed form from the narrative world, such as Oakdale Confidential, which was a book published in fictional Oakdale that played a part in numerous storylines. Online, a variety of narrative extensions from character blogs to Webisodes have been tried, to varying degrees of success, as well as backstage documentaries and reality shows based on soaps.

Character blogs and e-mails have proved that there was interest from both producers and consumers to create transmedia storytelling texts that deepened the ability to engage with a soap's main television show, and books like Oakdale Confidential proved creating narrative extensions can be successful for a niche property with an involved fan base, such as a soap opera. The sixth chapter of my thesis suggests several ways soaps might be able to extend their narratives through online narrative extensions and even user-generated content.