In the previous post, I ran a piece from Lynn Liccardo, one of my thesis advisors and a longtime soap opera fan and critic, on how the P&G ethos is separated from their soap opera programming. I waned to run Lynn's followup piece this morning.
No matter what reformulations, new packaging and other improvements market research generates for existing products, the fundamental function of those products must remain recognizable to consumers. At the end of the day, people have to be able to wash their clothes with Tide's "new formula" and brush their teeth with the "new and improved" Crest. While our mothers and grandmothers used earlier versions of Tide and Crest, they certainly wouldn't have any trouble recognizing and using the current formulas.
But when it comes today's soap operas, what I see flashing by as I watch with my finger on ff I can barely recognize the shows I've been watching for over 50 years. Such has been the impact of market research on soap operas. (And I want to be clear that while I'm speaking here specifically about P&G, the negative impact of market research effects all soap operas, not just those produced by P&G.)
The reason for this is that unlike market research for consumer products, there is little chance that researcher and subject will share an experiential frame of reference when it comes to watching soap operas; being a soap fan is simply not a prerequisite for a job researching soaps. That lack of commonality, coupled with advertisers' relentless search for the next big thing that will attract a younger demographic, has resulted in shows that are hardly identifiable as soap opera.
A 2003 BusinessWeek piece described A.G. Lafley's early days as P&G's CEO: "The first thing Lafley told his managers when he took the job was just what they wanted to hear: Focus on what you do well -- selling the company's major brands such as Tide, Pampers, and Crest -- instead of trying to develop the next big thing. Now, those old reliable products have gained so much market share that they are again the envy of the industry."
What Lafley's managers wanted to hear is exactly what soap opera fans want to see: soaps focusing on what they do well - character-driven multi-generational stories told with depth and complexity. Lafley is so clearly on the right track with P&G's consumer products. So, what would happen if those same principles were applied to P&G's soap operas as well?
For instance, what would happen if Lafley's mantra, "the customer is boss" was reinterpreted as "the viewer is boss?" Well, since television viewers are ultimately the product being delivered to the customer, which is to say the advertiser, the customer already is the boss. But, since P&G is the producer of As the World Turns and Guiding Light, as well as the shows' largest advertiser, they are in a unique position to find the "little clues in 'viewers' complaints and "use them" to improve the shows.
But the real rub is how P&G - and the others (ABC, CBS, Sony) - apply their market research. Lewis Hyde opened his 1983 book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, with a description of how an advertising agency developed the romance novel "formula," and asks the rhetorical question, "Why do we suspect that Silhouette Romances will not be enduring works of art?," followed by the not so rhetorical question that is the thrust of his book: "What is it about a world of art, even when it is bought and sold on the market, that make us distinguish it from such pure commodities as these?"
Hyde describes the inherent and inescapable tension between creativity and the marketplace: "Works of art exist simultaneously in two 'economies,' a market economy and a gift economy." He goes on to say, "Only one of these is essential however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art."
When it comes to soap opera, there are certainly those who will argue that soaps are nothing more than a video version of a romance novel, and that all that's needed for success is to ask the right questions of the right viewers to create a "formula." Well, that's pretty much what's been happening in recent years; the marketing people and network executives micromanage virtually every aspect of soap opera storytelling, yet ratings have never been lower and continue to drop. So maybe it's time to consider how Hyde's argument, "Where there is no gift there is no art," might apply to soaps.
"Soap opera" is storytelling, and that begins with the storyteller, the writer, whose gift - "the big aha" as it were - Hyde calls "the inner life of art."
It's the moment of inspiration that comes unbidden - in the shower, the pool, while tossing and turning trying to fall asleep - almost never sitting in front of the keyboard; the authenticity of these moments is the antithesis of formula, and without it, soap opera will not - make that cannot - survive.