As I watched I Charlie Rose’s interview with A. G. Lafley, P&G’s CEO, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to hear anything about P&G’s two long-running soap operas, As the World Turns and Guiding Light, and indeed, I did not. But what I did hear has enormous and immediate relevance for the current sorry state of these two shows.
I was immediately struck by several ironies, as Sam Ford described the situation I relayed to him. I, however, think we’re way beyond irony here – well on our way to cognitive dissonance. When Lafley talked about his experience as a supply officer in the Navy, running a PO on a military base in Japan, and described complaints as “these little clues you can use to improve your product... you should treasure complaints," I immediately thought of Alina Adams, who clearly wasn’t copied on the “we should treasure complaints” memo.
On page 86-87 of, Sam's thesis, he described a discussion on the PGP official SoapBox Fan Discussion Board Adams moderated in which she certainly did not welcome, much less treasure, fans’ complaints. Dismissive was more like it. (And as an aside, P&G’s not alone here; CBS’s VP for Daytime, Barbara Bloom, wasn’t exactly treasuring fans’ complaints about Guiding Light’s new format, when she said to TV Guide’s Michael Logan, “I think everybody who's complaining needs to lighten up.” TVGuide.)
I did a little poking around about Lafley, and the ironies abound. When Fortune named him to its Power 25 list, editors noted that under Lafley’s leadership P&G had, "refocused on consumers and rejuvenated core businesses." Lafley was on Charlie Rose as part of a promotional tour for his first book, The Game Changer: an excerpt was published on the Fortune website under the title, “The consumer is boss”, link. The excerpt describes P&G market researchers getting out of their offices and into the field to understand how consumers actually use P&G products, in this case, how a working-class Mexican family uses P&G’s laundry products.
Sam has long argued that the future of soap opera depends on their being treated as brands. And P&G practically invented branding and market research. And while Alina Adams may not “treasure the complaints,” P&G actually does a fair amount of market research on their soaps (operas that is). So, why the disconnect? Well, it’s because P&G does a fair amount of market research on its soaps (operas, that is).
I’ll explain. From “The consumer is boss:”
Starting in about 2001, P&G developed the "consumer closeness" program to create such experiences. "Living It" enables employees to live with lower-income consumers for several days in their homes, to eat meals with the family, and to go along on shopping trips. In a related program, "Working It," employees work behind the counter of a small shop. That gives them insight into why shoppers buy or do not buy a product, how the shopkeeper stacks the shelves, and what kind of business propositions are appealing. The idea behind Living It and Working It was to sit down with the bosses and to hear what they needed, even if they couldn't articulate it directly.
This makes sense when it comes to figuring out why people by P&G products. Rich or poor, from the USA or Mexico, we all have to clean our homes, do laundry, wash our bodies, brush our teeth. So, researcher shares an experiential frame of reference with subject. That’s why Pat Soldán could recognize “the big aha!”
"By spending time with women, we learned that the softening process is really demanding," recalls Antonio Hidalgo, P&G brand manager for Downy Single Rinse at the time of its debut in March 2004. A typical load of laundry went through the following six-step process: wash; rinse; rinse; add softener; rinse; rinse. No problem if all this is just a matter of pressing a button every once in a while. But it's no joke if you are doing the wash by hand or have to walk half a mile to get water. Even semiautomatic machines require that water be added and extracted manually. And if you get the timing wrong, the water supply might run out in the middle. "The big aha!" says Paz Soldán, was discovering how valuable water was to lower-income Mexicans. "And we only got that by experiencing how they live their life."
But soap operas aren’t fabric softener, or detergent, or anything else that P&G manufactures. And therein lies the problem…
Because whatever 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 the 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 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 happened 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 ATWT and GL, 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 work 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 operas 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.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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