How Soap Operas Received Their Name

One of the longest-lasting institutions on British television is the soap opera, which despite the name conjuring visions of a grand opera house made from the finest vegan soap, is some of the longest-running works of fiction ever written.

With soap operas still dominating the BBC and ITV schedules to this very day, most people have seen at least one or two episodes, typically characterised by everyday settings, lots of characters and plenty of melodrama to go around which makes them perfect television to start a conversation.

All of these traits are a common aspect of operas, particularly the operatic genre of verismo, a more realistic style of opera characterised by melodrama, violent plots and characters that if not outright borrowed from real life certainly evoked everyday existence.

Works such as La bohéme (later modernised and adapted as Rent), The Marriage of Figaro, and Carmen have a lot of analogues with the soaps that would later share a name with them.

However, what is more intriguing is the “soap” part of “soap opera”, as this is an aspect that is not entirely clear if you only look at British soap operas, although some adverts such as Daz’s Cleaner Close can provide a clue as to where the name comes from.

In the early days of broadcasting in the United States, nearly every programme was sponsored in a way that led to a close connection between a show and the product it was sponsoring.

One of the earliest successful examples of this was the first ever radio soap opera to be broadcast throughout the USA, Clara, Lu, ‘n Em.

Unlike a lot of later soap operas, Clara, Lu, ‘n Em did not have a long-running storyline but instead was more like listening to a chat between three ladies who lived in a duplex in a small American town and discussed their lives and the issues of the day.

It was sponsored by Super Suds, a brand owned by Colgate-Palmolive. and the three main characters would appear in serialised print adverts discussing the dishwashing soap, giving both the show and the brand greater recognition.

Procter & Gamble took notice, as did several other baking, cleaning and health products, all of which wanted to have their own sponsored radio show. However, P&G was the group most associated with the radio soap opera, in no small part because of the 27-year run of Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins.

Whilst a much slower-paced show compared even to the likes of The Archers, Ma Perkins was immensely popular and helped to make the laundry detergent Oxydol (the predecessor to Daz) popular in the United States.

Unlike other radio dramas of the time, but like a lot of sponsorship that came later, the line between the show and its marketing was blurred, to the point that many people simply described it as a soap opera, with the name sticking in the UK after it broadcast Front Line Family specifically to appeal to American soldiers.

Interestingly, it would take until 1999 for a soap opera (in this case, Emmerdale) to be sponsored by a soap company. Fittingly enough, it would be sponsored by Daz, the successor to Oxydol, one of the first soaps to sponsor a soap opera.

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