THE SOAP OPERA SAGA: Soap operas attract a very committed audience

Soap operas attract a very committed audience, so it's no surprise that some agencies have built campaigns using the genre. Kevin May examines how this special relationship can benefit brands.

Last year saw the 50th anniversary of the first detergent-sponsored TV drama series, The Guiding Light. In the half-century since then, "soap operas", as they quickly came to be known, have established themselves at the forefront of popular culture.

According to SPC Top Programmes, Coronation Street can pull in an audience of almost a third of the UK population, with EastEnders watched by more than a quarter of us at times.

It is not surprising that such a successful format has become a model for some advertising campaigns. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a soap opera as "characterised by a permanent cast of actors, a continuing story and emphasis on dialogue rather than action". But the appeal from an advertising perspective goes beyond this - it lies in the personalities themselves. Patrick Spence, a former advertising man, now a scriptwriter on Holby City, comments: "The key to writing soaps is creating strong characters. We don't have to like them - it often helps if we don't - but we have to feel we know them. They become more than on-screen roles. They become friends who you can't wait to see again to find out their news."

This is where the potential of the soap genre as an advertising vehicle lies - the sense of familiarity, involvement and anticipation can produce a pre-seduced audience by the first second of the commercial. It's about maximum receptivity.

You don't have to look much further than the Gold Blend couple for a perfect example. As the campaign approached its final throes, the "will they, won't they" chitter-chatter reached a pitch that hadn't been seen since the "who shot JR" episode of Dallas. Most advertising would be deemed a resounding PR success if it scored a couple of column inches outside the trade press and a passing reference to its slogan by Richard and Judy. Gold Blend was getting whole segments of drive-time radio and half-page splashes of editorial in the tabloids.

So why isn't every advertiser trying to develop a soap campaign? Possibly because it is very hard to do well and involves no small investment. For a start, you have to get the characters exactly right and never let them do anything that the audience knows they wouldn't do.

John Stuart, the marketing manager of Brooke Bond at the beginning of the Oxo family campaign, comments: "You have to be absolutely clear on your back-story and you need immense continuity. If you mess the characters up once, there is no coming back." Oxo used the same director and three main actors throughout its 16-year run and the viewers lived with the family as it grew up. Even so, Stuart recalls throwing away three finished commercials without ever airing them because they were "just not right".

You also need time to establish your story. Even the TV soaps struggle with introducing new characters. Helen Nugent, the archivist for Coronation Street, says: "The public rarely likes a family when it first arrives.

It's almost as if they have to live next door to these new people themselves and need a bit of time to warm to them." If it can be tricky developing that audience empathy in a 30-minute programme on air four times a week, then it's even harder to do it in 30 seconds with perhaps four commercials a year.

The production costs are high with the need to reach critical mass of executions. And you need to accept that each fresh commercial must be discarded after serving its purpose, often quite soon after it has first gone out. The media investment also needs to be huge, but even with a wholesome budget you can still go wrong. According to Chris MacDonald, the managing partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R: "To be effectively episodic, you need to get the flighting just right. If you over- or under-expose the next part of the story, you simply lose people's involvement." The weight needs to be heavy and the intervals spot on.

This kind of exposure is becoming difficult in these days of tighter budgets that need to be spread around an increasingly fractured media universe. It doesn't help that the classic soap campaign only works to full effect on TV. As Nigel Long, the chief executive of Partners BDDH, notes: "The challenge is to carry it into other media without just becoming a dull slice-of-life." This observation betrays a truth at the heart of the soap format: by holding a mirror up to everyday life we can identify with the storyline but, at the same time, such mundane familiarity can grow rather dull. Tastes have moved on and audiences demand more excitement. The encyclopaedia definition of soap also includes a reference to "slower-than-life pace", but that no longer pertains to the 21st-century demands for immediate gratification. TV soaps now need storylines of rape, murder and pillage that take them way beyond the sphere of "just like my life". Viewers are no longer tuning in just to gaze in the mirror but in search of vicarious thrills. This development may be rued by the likes of the late Kevin Laffan, the creator of Emmerdale, for "taking the drama away from the relationships between people", but at least the TV episode can accommodate it. The 30-, 60- or even 90-second ad doesn't stand a chance, assuming you could get paedophilia fit-ups, corpses under the patio and duffing up old ladies with a crowbar past the BACC in the first place.

It's not just TV viewers who are more impatient - everybody is. Clients and agencies alike are after quick results. Nobody stays in the same job long enough to hang around for half-a-dozen executions to filter through their effect. They want a "shock and awe" campaign that increases awareness by noon and shows sales uplift by teatime. Somebody else can deal with the aftermath. The whole world is moving ever faster. As Laurence Green, the planning partner of Fallon, observes: "Everything is changing more quickly so you would have to question a device that is resistant to change." Even the brands themselves are not static. A brand isn't worth having unless it can be stretched and metamorphosed into new territories. The classic soap campaign only really works with simple-format products such as coffee and stock cubes that can live in the background because people understand what they are. As Bernadette Knox, the global planning director at J. Walter Thompson, notes: "The story needs space to develop and too much of a product message inhibits this." The mirror is shattered as soon as the characters start to engage in "Wow. You did that with this?" conversations.

And brands aren't just extending into other categories - they are extending globally. Communication mechanics that rely heavily on dialogue, let alone cute local cultural characterisation and innuendo, are unlikely to be great hits on the international stage. With so much invested in each globally stretched brand, the ratchet turns ever higher on the death and disgrace stakes. A spokesman with a drink or drugs problem is one thing but, when it's a character at the heart of your commercial drama whom your audience regards as a real person linked to your brand, it can be catastrophic.

So have we seen the last of the soap opera campaign? Perhaps in its classic form, but it depends on what you define as a soap opera. Much has been made of Procter & Gamble's apparent return to the fold with the latest Daz campaign. After ten years of the doorstep challenge, the detergent manufacturer has once more put its name to a soap opera based on the denizens of Cleaner Close. But it's not a campaign in the tradition of Gold Blend et al. There was no Beefy Boulevard in Linda Bellingham's Oxo world. This is a mild parody that in itself represents a new paradigm. As Neil Dawson, the executive planning director of TBWA/London, puts it: "Literal representation doesn't work well with the sophisticated critical eye of today's consumer.

You need to use symbols or show life with a twist, founded on a genuine insight that amounts to much more than playing back familiar imagery and saying 'hey - that's you'."

Daz has found a way of sidestepping many of the genre's problems with this skit of the soap opera. The executions all work independently in their own right, with no need to get up to speed with the overall story.

The campaign is not reliant on any particular characters and, because the tone is clearly tongue-in-cheek, it's possible to cram plenty of product news in without appearing too hammy. It has even translated well into press, with a picture casebook series. Jim Carroll, the deputy chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: "It's a funny pastiche of a soap that delivers more reward. You can enjoy the gentle parody of a familiar genre rather than merely engaging in the basic storyline."

Holding up a mirror is no longer enough. The mirror now needs a crack.

OXO - J. Walter Thompson

Forty-two Oxo family ads were aired between 1983 and 1999. Although Unilever was initially inundated with complaints about warts-and-all family behaviour, the work became so popular that, as the JWT writer, Richard Saunders, recalls: "The trick was to remain entertaining without becoming cosy. Indeed, one script was rejected because it researched too well."

DAZ - Leo Burnett

Sharon Masnick, a senior planner at Leo Burnett, says: "We did a huge amount of research and found that our target audience over-indexed dramatically against soap watching. It's their escape. They love them, laugh at them, but don't take them totally seriously." The spoof approach allows Daz to be the central catalyst for the turn of events.

GOLD BLEND - McCann-Erickson

Probably the most celebrated ad soap opera of all, it got to the stage where forthcoming executions were being advertised on the TV listings pages of the national press. Luke White, the executive creative director of McCann-Erickson, comments: "Because the stories relied more on nuance than dialogue, it didn't feel like a hard-sell for the coffee."

BT - Partners BDDH

The campaign, which ran in the early 90s, trailed with short time lengths and the first execution proper introduced the "cast". According to the Partners BDDH chief executive, Nigel Long: "It was a deliberate attempt to be less corporate, taking a business message to decision-makers at home." When the business next went to pitch, continuing the soap opera vehicle was mandated.