Literary Analysis of an Advertisement: the Commercial As &Quot;Soap Opera&Quot;

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University
ABSTRACT - The paper analyzes the meaning of a television commercial for Procter & Gamble's GAIN detergent from a literary perspective. Three questions are posed: "What kind of commercial is it?" "How is it constructed?" and "What responses is it likely to elicit?" The analysis begins with identification of the advertisement's genre -- a miniature soap opera -- to examine the typical subject matter, structure, style, and emotional effects associated with its literary family. The commercial itself is then analyzed in detail to illustrate what the soap elements are and how they function. Since the soap opera genre has been associated with viewer responses, the paper will end by suggesting anticipated consumer responses of identification, involvement,- and word-of-mouth communication.
[ to cite ]:
Barbara B. Stern (1991) ,"Literary Analysis of an Advertisement: the Commercial As &Quot;Soap Opera&Quot;", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 172-175.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 172-175


Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University


The paper analyzes the meaning of a television commercial for Procter & Gamble's GAIN detergent from a literary perspective. Three questions are posed: "What kind of commercial is it?" "How is it constructed?" and "What responses is it likely to elicit?" The analysis begins with identification of the advertisement's genre -- a miniature soap opera -- to examine the typical subject matter, structure, style, and emotional effects associated with its literary family. The commercial itself is then analyzed in detail to illustrate what the soap elements are and how they function. Since the soap opera genre has been associated with viewer responses, the paper will end by suggesting anticipated consumer responses of identification, involvement,- and word-of-mouth communication.


Lively debate swirls around varied approaches to the "meaning" of advertising. The central question is, "Who or what determines an ad's meaning?" Does it emanate from the creator's (copywriter's, art director's) mind? Does it reside in the text (verbal and visual) and the media/vehicle (print, television, and so forth)? Is it governed by the socio-cultural context that, like amniotic fluid, surrounds an ad? Or is it a consumer-based construct, in the mind of the perceiver? Controversy as to whether advertising is an art, a science, or a business hinges on different approaches to meaning.

The panel presentation on "Advertising and the Meaning of Meaning" (see Boller and Olson, McCracken, and Hirschman, following) was designed to bring together advertising researchers and creators for the first time to take advantage of their varied perspectives. First, each researcher used his/her perspective to analyze an advertising specimen: a 30-second television commercial for Procter & Gamble's GAIN detergent. Next, the commercial's creators -- Ray Hirschman and Ron Hartley, Senior Vice-Presidents and Creative Directors at Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc. -- revealed their ideas about how the commercial came into being. Last, a discussant (Elizabeth Hirschman) explored the concept of multiple meanings and its value in consumer research.

This first paper proposes literary criticism as a research approach to meaning that may help integrate our understanding of why consumers respond the way they do. The purpose of the following analysis -- based on the methodology of "close reading" or explication (Stem 1989) -- is to provide a systematic framework for consideration of three questions: 'What kind of commercial is it?" "How is it constructed?" and "What responses is it likely to elicit?" The response to the first question identifies the advertisement's genre -- it is a soap opera -- in order to ascertain its distinctive subject matter, structure, style, and emotional effects (Abrams 1988). In answer to the second question, the paper describes generic soap elements and then illustrates how they function in the GAIN commercial. To deal with the last question, the paper proposes that consumer responses to the soap commercial may resemble reader responses (Stem and Gallagher 1990) of identification, involvement, and word-of-mouth said to be associated with televised soap programs.


Genre criticism is a useful way to enter text, for an advertisement's family provides information about the conventions or codes that govern form and content (Abrams 1988). The name "soap opera" testifies to the blending of advertising and programming that characterized the first radio serials created for women audiences in the 1930s. These programs were developed by detergent companies, notably Procter & Gamble, as "tie-ins" with their products (Ensign and Knapton 1985). When soaps moved to television in the 1950s (Leiss, Kline, and Jhally 1986), the close connection between programming and advertising continued. Nonetheless, despite this linkage, little attention has been paid to similarities between the programs and the commercials (Cantor and Pingree 1983), and the genre has not yet been analyzed as an advertising format. Thus, this paper turns to genre studies to address a research gap in our understanding of what a soap opera commercial looks like and how it works.

In order to analyze the genre, some historical background is required, for the soaps' typical (see Cantor and Pingree 1983; Fiske 1987) subject matter, setting, form, structure, characters, and values can best be viewed as modern reworkings of older material. While contemporary soaps are specific to the electronic media, their peculiar blend of realism and fantasy stems from roots in older literary antecedents -- family sagas, domestic novels. romance literature. and realistic drama.

Subject and Setting

Soap opera subjects -- their typical topics -reveal ancestral ties to the eighteenth century sentimental novel (see Cantor and Pingree 1983), the nineteenth century domestic novel (Bridgewood 1986), and the early twentieth century romance novel (Baym 1981). Domestic novels were frequently serialized, and were primarily written by, for, and about women. They generally dealt with the problems of courtship, marriage, and family life. When soaps moved from radio to television, the topic of pre-marital romance was supplanted by that of the post-marital family. Whereas "romances" traditionally end at the altar, the "family sagas (Bridgewood 1986, p. 172) from which soaps descend begin there.

The most frequently encountered subject of television soaps is real-life family relationships (Edmundson and Rounds 1976; Ensign and Knapton 1985; La Guardia 1983), including but not limited to spousal love. Even though soaps deal with a broad array of relationships, their focus on the domestic world shuts out many other important subjects -among others, work, religion, political passions, moral causes, intellectual pursuits, and current affairs. Notwithstanding this constricted world, the genre aims at verisimilitude, here defined as the achievement of an illusion of reality (Abrams 1988). Soap realism is manifested in the setting's fidelity to the details of dailyness (Ensign and Knapton 1985; La Guardia 1983). "Setting" includes all of the physical details that locate a story in time and space (Abrams 1988): geographical location, costumes, hairstyles, food, interior decor, architecture, and so forth. The most important soap locale is the home and neighboring environs (Fiske 1987), and its realism -- like the naturalistic drama to which it is distantly related (Hatlen 1962) -- consists of representation of the minutia of ordinary life.

Form and Structure

While the soap setting aims at verisimilitude, both its structure and form depart from the conventions of realistic drama. The soap opera form -- its principles of organization -- and structure -- its plot or series of actions -- represent an amalgam of stylized elements drawn from earlier domestic novels (Edmundson and Rounds 1976; Ensign and Knapton 1985; Hirschman 1988), modified to suit electronic media. Soaps are, first of all, serials -- that is, their structure is episodic and their narrative is ongoing. Each episode presents a more or less coherent set of events (Hirschman 1988), but lacks definitive narrative closure. For this reason, soaps have been called "cliche cliffhangers" (Ensign and Knapton 1985), designed to end with an unresolved problem so that viewers will tune in to the next installment.

Serialization entails an unusual plot structure, in that soaps have no clear beginning or end. They are, instead, "an infinitely extended middle" (Fiske 1987, p. 180). Action often begins in the middle, leaving viewers to unravel complex scenarios on their own. Announcers whose function is to help the audience figure out what is going on are not ordinarily present in television soaps (Cantor and Pingree 1983). In their place, other contextual cues are provided, the most important of which is music (Scott 1990). This is both a first cue to the genre (the opening bars) and an ongoing one signifying change (transitions in time, space, and action) (Ensign and Knapton 1985).

Although changes in milieu occur frequently, soap plots do not develop momentum in order to achieve a climax. On the contrary, a key aspect of their middle-heaviness is that the overall structure is infinite: soaps never end. One sub-plot leads to another, and semi-resolved conflicts in one set of actions are incorporated into later ones (Cantor and Pingree 1983). Just as the traditional dramatic unity of beginning-middle-end is not a value, neither is dramatic continuity. Instead, disjunction is the rule, for numerous stories are interwoven by means of abrupt jump-cuts from one to another (Fiske 1987). Rapid shifts in action with neither causal transitions nor narrative guidance are features of open-ended plots, structural oddities in that they are capable of infinite extension because they can go off in any direction at will.

This open-ended structure determines the soaps' unusual treatment of time as well: it is the only genre in which time passage within the story parallels the actual passage of time in real life. This accounts for the slow pace and paucity of action. Techniques such as flashbacks and repetitious dialogue needed for recapitulation of vital information add to an atmosphere of stasis. Soaps seem to be going nowhere, for while endless talk swirls around trivial events (Edmundson and Rounds 1976), nothing much happens. Lengthy conversations require the camera to linger on the characters, and close-up shots enable audiences to "read" facial expressions and body language. Television soaps, in fact, rely on dialogue and portraiture to such an extent that they have been called "radio with pictures" (Cantor and Pingree 1983, p. 24).

Characters and Values

The prototypical soap characters behave like cardboard pictures because they are simplistic and unidimensional stereotypes rather than fully-rounded individuals (Buckman 1984; Ensign and Knapton 1985). Their personalities are bounded by family roles, for the family is construed as a "universal form" or "every-family" as a result of common role-requirements that over-ride situational differences in social, economic, or national status (Bridgewood 1986). Motherhood, especially, is the same everywhere, and soap women show even less individuality than do men as a result of ubiquitous female roles in child bearing and rearing. Soap heroines are identified by family roles such as "mother," "wife," "helpmate," and so forth, because the nature of a character is defined by her relationships to others: husband, children, parents, and outsiders who interact with the family.

The domestic orientation of soap characters is rooted in the middle class ethos, for they "are supposed to be average, just like their audience" (Edmundson and Rounds 1976, p. 15). They represent middle America: white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who live in the suburbs, who are not too poor or too rich, too proud or too humble, too ignorant or too educated. Generally, the men have professional careers and the women are housewives, but even when the women work outside the home, they are expected to view household chores as "women's work."

Despite the characters' averageness, however, their lives are anything but dull. On the contrary, they revel in rich emotionality, often displaying intense reactions to mundane events. Melodramatic plot devices (Ensign and Knapton 1985) and habitual sentimentality (La Guardia 1983) are the rule, for the characters' spin out exhaustive analyses of their feelings and tend to react to ordinary events more strongly than one would expect of people in real-life situations (Abrams 1988). Indeed, heightened emotionality is the hallmark of two popular stereotypical "good" characters: the "decent husband" (Fiske 1987) and the "devoted wife" (Buckman 1984).

"The Decent Husband"

The sensitive hero is a soap convention that distinguishes it from other types of "women's literature." A "decent husband" is the pillar of the soap family, one whose moral fibre is made visible by his physical attractiveness. He may be young or young-looking, but he is never jejeune, for he reveals sufficient traces of weariness to let viewers know that he is struggling under the weight of a heroic burden. The burden is one of family obligations: this hero is a law-abiding citizen who obeys the Ten Commandments, loves his wife, honors his parents, and nurtures his children. Most notably, the soap husband is portrayed as dependable, persevering in the "hardest, dullest, and least rewarding task of all" -- that of providing emotional security to those who depend on him (Buckman 1984).

Notwithstanding his noble nature, the hero is not a goody-goody, too perfect to be believable. The reason is that his sensitivity to others -especially women -- legitimizes the "caring, nurturing, and verbal" aspects of his nature (Fiske 1987, p. 186). He is a man who likes women, who is interested in the things that interest them, and who is attuned to their needs. Unlike other romance heroes, the soap husband is emotionally accessible: he is "usually open and supportive, interested in children and clothes, feelings, and cooking" (Bridgewood 1986, p. 193). While he may wield power in his own "place" -- the external world -- he becomes tender and vulnerable in private life (Bridgewood 1986). The "decent husband" presents a picture of what soap heroines want in a man: commitment, fidelity, and open articulation of feelings.

"The Devoted Wife"

Because the soap hero is the kind of man who causes his "wife's eyes to shine when she hears his key in the latch" (Buckman 1984, pp. 4041), she responds with devotion. The "devoted wife" is at once good and strong, a role-model who maintains marital happiness by performing necessary household chores to perfection. Her most important job is to keep the domestic machinery running smoothly and efficiently (Buckman 1984). She is expected to cope with family crises (not to create them), and to dispense the balm of love and nurturance needed to heal inevitable domestic wounds.

The heroine's role demands qualities such as patience, good humor, tact, and common sense, all associated with traditional values of "home" as woman's "place" (Welter 1966). The soap wife's patience shows that old-fashioned simplicity and the work ethic are superior to the modern world's insistence on instant gratification. Her good humor permits her to respond cheerfully to the crises of motherhood, jollying the family into civility when tempers flare. These wifely virtues -- parodied in The Stepford Wives --- are "the stuff of nostalgia" (Buckman 1984, p. 48), for although the devoted wife is a modern woman, her morality is rooted in traditional virtues. These ties to the past permit women to pass the torch of civilization from one generation to the next.

Soap Values: Traditionalism, Marriage, and Matriarchy

Passing the torch involves women's role in the preservation of traditional American social and moral values (Fiske 1987), a role that is fundamental to the concept of matriarchal power. Soap values -defined as abstract ideals representing beliefs about ideal modes of behavior and outcomes of life decisions (Rokeach 1973) -- look backwards to a mythical golden age of old-fashioned family togetherness. These bygone values are presented as superior to those governing the chaotic modern world (Buckman 1984), 'for the soaps' long view of time favors the supremacy of history, respect for one's cultural heritage, and belief in family continuity. This is the reigning ideology of the status quo, where history repeats itself, what goes around comes around, and eternal verities remain constant. At best, the values laud female bonding (mothers/daughters) in generational cycles ultimately responsible for perpetuating the human race (Bridgewood 1986).

In the soap world, the value of family security rests on the centrality of marriage as an institution that guarantees happiness in human life. Family continuity stems from a cardinal tenet of bourgeois morality -- marriage for love (Bridgewood 1986, p. 183) -- and the most salient soap belief is that everyone can attain happiness in marriage. As Edmundson and Rounds say, "The central tenet of soap opera is that personal happiness is possible, right here on this earth....The vision of supreme happiness that is held out -- and demonstrably available to the ordinary, quite average person -- is that of-a happy marriage" (1976, p. 16).

However, the family can never rest in a state of stable equilibrium, for perpetual disturbance is what keeps the soap world in motion (Fiske 1987). Even happy marriages require an ongoing set of problems to push the action forward. These problems serve more than a structural purpose, however, for their existence highlights the source of matriarchal power. The feminine value most idealized in the soap world is women's power to control relationships. But since the concept of feminine power is complex, soap values are often paradoxical. While women do have a great deal of power in relationships, the domain itself is a limited one, for it is men who have power everywhere else. In this view, repetitious soap themes are the structural equivalent of a housewife's confinement to a life of domestic monotony routinized by the multiplicity and endlessness of housework tasks (Fiske 1987). The heroine's series of small victories afford her minor pleasures rather than big societal rewards, and for this reason they have been judged negatively as emblems of a social system that "buys" consent to full-time domesticity with small sops.

In fairness, however, soaps have also been said to present a more positive valuation of feminine power by emphasizing process rather than product, by depicting pleasure as ongoing rather than finite, and by displaying domestic life rather than business or politics or war as a source of gratification. Thus, soaps can be said to validate feminine principles as sources of legitimate pleasure within a society that tends to value whatever is masculine more highly. The affirmation of relationship-power is said to raise the level of -feminine self-esteem by depicting a feminized culture (Modlewski 1982). In this respect, soaps are interpreted as empowering women by approving their ability to influence men to marry them, father their children, and take responsibility for the family (Fiske 1987). While validation of motherhood as the pre-eminent female role (Modlewski 1982) does limit women's power to the home, it nevertheless presents at least one positive stereotype to counterbalance the misogynistic figures often found in other media offerings. In sum, typical soap characters, values, subjects, and structural elements define the genre and set it apart from most others on television.


The GAIN commercial derives much of its meaning as a specimen within this genre, for it is indebted to the historical association between detergent manufacturers, soap programs, and advertisements. While it conforms for the most part to genre conventions, some elements have been modified to reflect the detergent's regional market: the south-eastern United States. The opening bars of music provide a first genre clue, for this innocuous "needle-drop" melody (Scott 1990) tells viewers that what they are about to see can be categorized as a soap opera. The familiar subject of family love here concerns the relationship between Bobby (husband), Mary Lou (wife), and Laura (little girl).

The topic of post-marital domesticity is worked out by means of the pattern of hugs designed to move the action forward. Bobby hugs Laura; Mary Lou hugs her laundry; but -- we note this now (see below) -- Bobby and Mary Lou do not hug each other. The hugs create a structural link between the plot's domestic problem and the product's role as a problem-solver. Laura's problem is that in her quest for successful housewifery, she must see to it that laundry not only looks clean, but also smells clean. Her problem is solved by GAIN, a detergent whose main benefit is "that huggable smell" -- the package slogan is "the sunshine scent -- for great smelling laundry." The pattern of successive hugs moves towards a successful resolution of the laundry problem, and at the same time demonstrates Laura's success in creating family intimacy.

This intimacy takes on heightened importance within the ad's closed system of reference. Although Bobby's uniform signals the presence of the non-domestic external world (see below), he has exited from this external reality by the time we meet him. Bobby's passage through the door of the home into the yard -- like Alice in Wonderland's descent underground -- symbolizes crossing a barrier from the world outside the family (war and work) to the world within (home and hearth). Domestic setting details build up verisimilitude for the viewers, whom we recall are southerners. The commercial's two locales -- a "family get together" at a barbecue and a laundry room -- are filled with appropriate regional visibilia. The food sizzling on a grill is cut-up skin-on chicken parts, an inexpensive staple popular in the south, one also indicative of the family's lower middle class socio-economic status. If, hypothetically, the commercial were instead targeted to northern upscale city dwellers, the barbecue might feature grilled chicken kebobs or fish.

Verisimilitude is further enhanced by the characters' attire, appropriate to the southern lifestyle and weather conditions. The day is hot and humid, and the gathering is an informal one where people might be expected to wear cool and comfortable clothing rather than their party best. Mary Lou wears a sleeveless flowered loose shift, and Laura wears a t-shirt and denim rompers. Only Bobby's full military uniform is inappropriately formal. On a hot day, a soldier who leaves base seems more likely to fold his soft hat (note that he is not wearing a brimmed cap) and tuck it under his epaulet. However, this formality may serve as a narrative aid to the audience, in need of definitional clues to facilitate accurate identification of characters. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps Bobby wears the soft rather than the brimmed cap because only the former is distinctively military, and hence Bobby is not likely to be mistaken for a policeman or a parcel post driver.

Just as the commercial's setting displays salient soap characteristics as genre cues, so too does it's treatment of time. The episode is, firstly, complete in itself, the story of a husband's return home and the reunification of a family. However, it s also part of an ongoing tale, for it seems to be a skewed middle, showing no clear-cut beginning, but unlike soap programs) a clear-cut end. The lack of background about events preceding Bobby's entry rough the door raises several questions: where was ^? why was he away? what did he do when he was away? was he away for a long time? Recall that the commercial is dated 9/1/89, before the Iraq crisis, so e cannot assume that Bobby's absence is war-related. Nor can we make a similar assumption out his homecoming, and additional mystery surrounds the connection (if any) between his return and the family get-together. As expected, the passage of time is disjunctive, in that quick camera cuts jump from the chickens on the grill, to Laura, to Bobby and Mary Lou outdoors, to Mary Lou alone in the laundry room, and to all three together at last in the final frame. The dissolve to the laundry room is a flashback, drawing an event prior to the commercial's opening into the middle of the plot.



The middle is not extended indefinitely, however, for a flash-forward to a climax suggests that the soap commercial superimposes a structured problem-solving plot on the more usual serialized program format. The reason is that while a program has infinite tomorrows in which action can be continued, an advertisement does not. Both a narrator and a climax have been introduced to meet advertising's need for closure. The commercial ends with a narrative message lest the audience miss the point of the product's benefit. The next-to-the last shot (detergent package) is followed by the final spoken line -- "makes a mama proud" -- in a metonymic association of clean-smelling laundry with good motherhood. This narrative closure can probably be understood in light of the difference between an advertisement's persuasive goal (buy the product now), and a program's entertainment goal (tune in tomorrow).

The message seeks to persuade with an emotional (rather than a rational) appeal, for it taps into feelings associated with clean-smelling laundry. Bobby and Mary Lou are stereotypes, unidimensional in their fixation on laundry, and individuated only insofar as required by the southern milieu. Their identity is defined primarily by family roles, for sexual expressivity is limited not only to product-related attributes, but also to requirements of family decorum. In light of the focus on clean-smelling clothes, we notice that Bobby not only hugs Laura, but also sniffs her clothing. This fleeting hint of sexuality is emboldened in the laundry room scene, where Mary Lou is seen embracing her laundry. She glows with pride, face upwards, and seems to be ecstatically relating to the laundry as if it were her lover's body. However, Bobby and Mary Lou do not make physical contact, for both male and female sexuality must be sublimated. In the soap world, individual sexual gratification has to be kept in its place, for it may not threaten family unity.

The supremacy of family unity ensures that Bobby's sexy good looks -- he is tall, dark, and handsome -- delineate him as a "decent husband" rather than as a romantic suitor. His demeanor bears tribute to dedication to Go I and country in both public and private life. Bobby's career symbolizes honor, for a current American cultural value is respect for military service (as distinct from other cultures, which may associate soldiering with violence or subversion). The ironic tension between Bobby's career and his emotional openness keeps his character from being too good to be true. Bobby is able to leave militaristic detachment at the office and move into a more loving mode at home. In the soap lexicon, his ability to articulate feelings defines him as a sensitive man. He not only notices that Laura's clothes smell good, but also has the capacity to express his pleasure openly by hugging her. His demonstrativeness in displaying affection makes both mother and daughter happy: Mary Lou says she is "that proud" of Bobby's compliment.

Mary Lou's pride in her family demarcates her as the "devoted wife." Her job is running the home, for she is intent on making sure that every domestic detail is "just right." She bears primary responsibility for special events (the family gathering) as well as for daily chores. Her investment of self-esteem in proper performance of domestic roles is indicated by the glow of pride she feels as a result of complements on the way her laundry smells. Mary Lou is a testimonial to soap heroine qualities such as patience (she waits at home while Bobby is away), nurturance (if "food = love," she is the one who cooks the chickens), and caring for others (she braids Laura's hair). Her happiness stems from small domestic successes: she enjoys seeing her stack of perfectly folded towels, and she smiles with pleasure while hugging clean linen. In the final frame, she beams when Bobby hugs Laura, even though Bobby has not noticed her in any way unconnected with motherhood. This spells out the foundation of her identity: Mary Lou is a proud "mama."

The commercial thus enshrines the values of motherhood, America, and apple pie in a nostalgic evocation of an ideal past. Celebration of a traditional family ritual in this insulated world suggests the cyclical bonding between mothers and daughters that links present generations with the American heritage. The family's values rest on mature love encompassed by the institution of marriage, and Bobby and Mary Lou seem to have found happiness in their relationship. Laura is the beneficiary of their joy, hinting at the perpetuation of this value system into the next generation.

Indeed, Bobby and Mary Lou seem like quintessentially average parents in many ways, except for one: they express a degree of emotionality in excess of what the occasion seems to require. This display of emotional excess in reference to clean-smelling clothes is an expected genre idiosyncracy, however, here related to the product being advertised. The product functions as a problem-solver, for the implicit -- but small - disturbance in family equilibrium is the problem of getting laundry to smell good. Mary Lou solves the problem, for she is in charge of relationship maintenance, displaying her power by showing her love. Like the women in Steel Magnolias, Mary Lou's strength is gentled by a fragile exterior (sweet voice, slow drawl, light touch). She willingly accedes to her daughter in receiving open acknowledgement of Bobby's affection, and articulates pride in selfless sacrifices. However, her joy need not be interpreted as being either trivial or demeaning to women, for it is Mary Lou who guides her family to an appreciation of life's small pleasures. While the commercial's values do appear conservative, they also seem likely to match those of the target market -- lower middle class southern women living outside of big cities -- a substantial group of American women.


This paper suggests that consumers are likely to respond to soap advertisements as they do to the programs themselves, for prior experience with the genre may acculturate the viewer both in terms of expectations and responses (see Scott 1990). That is, a consumer may be said to watch this kind of commercial "successfully" if s/he possesses the requisite "degree of cultural capital constituted by knowledge of the conventions of the genre" (Brusdon in Fiske, 1987, p. 193). Three previously identified viewer responses -- identification, involvement, and word-of-mouth discussion (Buckman 1984) -- are summarized very briefly, for Boller and Olson (ff.) deal fully with consumer processing.


The majority of the soap audience (adult women) is said to identify (Buckman 1984) with the heroine, the most important character in our GAIN commercial as well as in most programs. Women have been found to identify with female characters on television (Fiske 1987) when the characters are recognizable human beings to whom the audience can relate as being in some way like themselves. The soaps' complete fidelity to setting details appears likely to lend a surface verisimilitude that is mimetic of real life, inviting the viewer to see her/himself in the "social tableau" (Marchand 1985). The tendency of theater audiences to participate vicariously in the lives of characters on stage suggests that imaginative identification may be a response to dramatic advertisements as well (see Boller and Olson, ff.).


Soap audiences from the outset have evidenced so high a level of identification with the characters that it is often termed "involvement" (Fiske 1987; La Guardia 1983). This is defined as a viewer's ongoing and active response to programs that become so much a part of his or her daily life that no barrier is erected between fact and fiction. Because soap characters live on from day to day in viewers' living rooms, they hold a special place in "the memory and gossip of viewers" (Fiske 1987, p. 180). High involvement is expressed by viewer failure to distinguish between the performance and the performer, and the tendency to confuse real actors and actresses with the characters they portray. Many viewers try to contact the characters, and television networks, producers, and writers often receive mail, phone calls, cards, and gifts from fans. In addition, viewers support a wide array of soap publications, especially fan magazines, a phenomenon not encountered in other television genres. Thus, viewers not only participate vicariously in soap characters' lives in the process of identification, but also endow these characters with status in their own personal lives by means of a process that seems more akin to involvement.

Social Gratification: Word-of-Mouth

High involvement has stimulated word-of-mouth activity, especially in light of the new soap audience in the 1970s: college students. Students engage in mass viewing of daytime soaps -especially "General Hospital" -- unlike the lone listening or viewing habits of housewives tuned in to radio or television (La Guardia 1983). Physical proximity has been found to increase product-related conversations (Price and Feick 1984), and the habit of group television watching suggests that viewers' discussions of soap stories may spill over to discussions of products. If advertisements in soap formats inspire viewers to talk about the products shown, they may stimulate word-of-mouth responses, and thus acquire marketplace as well as social utility.


Advertising and soaps have remained closely linked for half a century, despite criticism on the part of "media snobs" who poke fun at the fantastically unrealistic soap world (bizarre events, exotic diseases, incredible coincidences), and condemnation on the part of early feminists who damned the heroines as caricatures (Fowles 1983). However, a re-valuation of soaps has led more recent critics to a deeper understanding of the genre. Now soaps are said to affirm a "feminine aesthetic" by offering positive views of feminine culture that empower rather than oppress women. They may even serve a useful social purpose by teaching men how women would like them to behave. Even if the soap problems seem far removed from everyday reality, the programs may convey the supportive message that individuals are capable of solving problems through their own efforts. While this revaluation may be an optimistic argument for the social desirability of soap programs, much further research on soap advertisements is needed to determine whether they reflect reality, shape it, or do a bit of both.


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