CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/SOAP-OPERA COMMERCIALS; Has the soap format become a cliche in TV ads?

Large-budget soap-opera ads usually make quite an impact, Harriet Green says

Large-budget soap-opera ads usually make quite an impact, Harriet Green


The British public loves soap operas. Coronation Street is preparing to

run four days a week. In the newspapers, we constantly read about the

comings and goings of soap stars. And a worrying number of people tune

into Neighbours while having their tea.

The advertising industry takes a lot of credit for the early success of

the genre, which isn’t called soap opera for nothing (Procter and

Gamble was behind the original concept). Now, every so often, the

industry revisits its monstrous creation with commercials that ape the

dramatic format.

This week, Gold Blend returned to our screens with the latest episode of

its love-triangle saga. The commercial competes directly with the UK

launch of the leading French coffee brand, Carte Noire, which makes

similar use of the glam coupledom.

Guess Jeans has come back to TV after nine years with ‘cheat’, a

Hollywood-style tale of deception that unfolds across five 15-second

teasers and a 90-second commercial (Campaign, last week).

Soap-opera ads are nothing new. After all, the Gold Blend series has

been running for years. Going further back - to the 70s - we watched a

family drama unfold around a box of Oxo cubes; and remember how an

Anglo-French couple chuckled amorously over a bottle of Cointreau. Then,

in the 80s, a pair of yuppies made plans to launch a business while

seated in their Renault 25. And last year BT launched a soap ad in which

the boss of a furniture company lectured her staff about good


Derek Coutts, the BFCS director behind major serial ads such as Gold

Blend, Kleenex and Oxo, believes they are popular because ‘people love

little emotional dramas’. But has soap opera become an advertising


Patrick Collister, Ogilvy and Mather’s executive creative director,

tries, if half-heartedly, to avoid the term soap while describing his

agency’s recent radio series for Shell, ‘the forecourt’. ‘It’s more Goon

Show than Brookside,’ he laughs, before compromising on the term soap


If ‘the forecourt’ avoids the charge of being cliched, it’s because the

ad is massively over the top. ‘If you’ve ever wondered what 30 orphans,

18 pekingeses and Griff Rhys Jones in the role of an 80-year-old woman

would all sound like singing Auld Lang Syne, check out episode four,’

Mitch Levy, the former O&M creative behind the ad, says.

Another break with convention is Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe’s ‘Miller

Time’ campaign. Like ‘the forecourt’, it has a specific weekly slot, and

each week the talkshow host character, Johnny Miller, moves the story on

a bit further.

‘It’s extremely hard to construct dialogue that isn’t really stupid and

to keep the characters sympathetic,’ Coutts says. And good

characterisation is crucial. Witness the failed Mercury One-2-One

campaign starring Robert Lindsay and Beatrice Dalle through Woollams

Moira Gaskin O’Malley. Collister explains: ‘You need to identify with

them, even if you hate loads of them.’

It is this familiarity with the characters that smoothes over what would

be a flaw in other ads. ‘Who would have thought that Oxo’s eight-year-

old little girl would turn into a big girl?’ Coutts chuckles.

But agencies need a large budget and a regular supply of ads to maintain

public interest in these unfolding sagas. As Collister remembers,

there’s no point in boring the pants off everybody by showing the same

Gold Blend ad solidly for six months.

Collister is scathing about ads such as those for Gold Blend. There is

no accounting for the taste of middle Britain, he quips. However, Sholto

Douglas-Home, BT’s advertising manager, disagrees: ‘Just because they

are a cliche to the ad world, doesn’t mean they are a cliche to the

punters.’ He is so convinced the soap format works that, although he’s

reviewing the BT account, he intends to push on with the ad series.

But the soap format is no guarantee of success, as Young and Rubicam’s

‘que signifie 1664?’ series for Kronenbourg 1664 showed. Scripted in

French, it was trumpeted as the UK’s first ad serial thriller. Its

thrilling premise? A girl disappears after leaving a bath running and

writing ‘1664’ on a steamed-up mirror. The series was axed in November.

Critics say its main problem was insufficient characterisation and a

lack of funds. In four years, the agency made just four films.

Toby Hoare, Y&R’s managing director, is reluctant to discuss the

Kronenbourg ads directly but, speaking of soaps generally, he declares:

‘They are very expensive to maintain. You need a large support to keep

people up to date.’

That’s why Gold Blend and Kenco are so successful. As another senior

agency chief says: ‘The coffee boys have the dosh.’

Agencies like soaps - they give them a chance to lock in clients for

years. One agency chief who has worked on a soap ad says: ‘Once

established, they are very difficult to stop.’

As anybody who’s watched Eldorado, Dallas or Dynasty will tell you,

soaps have a habit of reaching terrible endings. But in ads mass-murders

would appear unwise. Gold Blend ended its first series with a kiss.

Tesco allowed Dudley Moore to finally catch up with the chickens he’d

hunted so assiduously for 14 episodes. And Kronenbourg? What did 1664

signify? We never found out. But then, we never really cared.