Since last week's news that ABC was pulling the plug on soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live simultaneously (See my piece last week here), the cancellation has been a major topic of discussion in a variety of online forums. From soap fans disputing the decision to myriad articles declaring further proof of the end of the genre, the soaps are once again where several of the shows long wanted to find themselves: at the center of some mainstream cultural discussion. Of course, this is the last type of stunt the soaps wanted to get themselves "trending," so to speak.
One of the bits of news keeping the story alive was the decision made by Hoover to pull all its advertising from ABC in the wake of the announcement, announced on Facebook. According to Hoover's Brian Kirkendall, his wife and his mother were big fans of the two soaps, as well as others at Hoover, and he made the decision to pull the ads without consulting his bosses after visiting his ill mother. (See more from The Los Angeles Times.) As of tomorrow, Hoover will cease to advertise on ABC.
The story has been covered far and wide. Kirkendall told Soap Opera Digest that they had received 4,703 emails as of Tuesday evening to their newly created SaveTheSoaps@Hoover.com email address. And soap opera fans have been highly supportive. Fans of NBC's Chuck"saved" the show by rallying one its main sponsors, Subway, through buying their sandwiches as a way of lodging a vote for their endangered show. (See more here). In this case, though, it was Hoover's listening to the outrage of soap opera fans and responding in short order.
Not surprisingly, some are questioning whether the move by Hoover is anything deeper than a publicity move. After all, the network only spent $243,000 in 2010 on ABC Daytime and only $353,000 in advertising on the whole network. In other words, its offer to pull a small ad buy and collect some emails to forward along really isn't all that much sacrifice, and the amount of ink it's led to is substantial. Such facts are leading some to call the decision "mostly bogus," as Jim Edwards wrote, a brilliant way to get publicity but without any real meat behind it. Says Brian Steinberg at Advertising Age:
We suspect something decidedly more cynical is at play. Realizing that the audience for ABC soaps is likely to dwindle further in the wake of the network's decision to cancel them, Hoover, a tiny TV advertiser at best, is making the smartest business play it can. It's trying to harness the anger and frustration of soap-sympathetic consumers before they give up on soaps altogether. And the company is trying to do so in the most cost-effective manner it knows how—on a Facebook page where few people will ask tough questions about its motives and finances. Consumers—left underserved in this case by media outlets that aren't asking a question or two—will be left with the impression that Hoover truly cared about them when in fact it didn't. [ . . . ] If you really feel that strongly about soap operas, Mr. Kirkendall, you'd be opening your company's wallet, not a letter on a Facebook page.
Hoover hasn't spoken out directly about these concerns as to their long-term commitment to "saving the soaps." Thus far, the company has generated some substantial support from soap opera fans dedicated to finding some way to keep their stories alive, or in the case of fans of already-cancelled soaps, of finding a way to get their beloved characters back on screen.
But this is a story that time will ultimately tell. As "the powers that be" at television networks and soap opera production companies know well, passionate soap opera viewers can be dedicated but also quite skeptical, and soap opera fans are taking Hoover at their word that they care about these soaps at the moment. But that means that they'll be looking for a "step two." Having felt failed by the networks and the companies that produce the soaps, soaps fans are looking for a champion, whether it be rallying Oprah Winfrey to support the genre on her new cable network or rallying advertisers directly. Hoover has stepped up to claim a commitment to "save the shows," so they'd better be ready and prepared to make good on the offer. After all, these are fans who have followed Erica Kane through many marriages and Viki Lord through many personalities for decades...They don't have a problem with long-term memory.
In a piece I had the pleasure of contributing to, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson at The Financial Times writes, "Advertisers would do better to forget such stunts and start thinking about whether they can help create a more viable economic model for the soap opera in the digital media era. [ . . . ] The intellectual property such brands have built up over decades still has value, and some of the 2.5m-plus viewers each show on ABC's death row pulls in every day would follow them to a new home."
My question to Hoover as a PR professional is, "What's next?" What do you have as phase two and phase three of the plan?" And my question as a soaps fan is, "What are you going to do to save this genre? You've made the commitment. Now, I take you at your word."
Could Hoover do as some have called for and think of alternative ways to support the soaps through a cable network or even through an alternative form of distribution, such as VOD or online video and put their money where their mouth is? Could Hoover start directing its rallying of fans toward decision-makers who might actually do something about it? Could Hoover start recruiting other like-minded brands who see the value in multigenerational storytelling—and a fan base that stretches across multiple target demographics—and/or the value of Boomer audiences and form a coalition to demonstrate continued support for the U.S. daytime serial drama?
Hoover has left the soap opera fan at a cliffhanger. It's the classic Friday afternoon episode, and we're all wondering what Monday will bring. Will Hoover help soap fans do what the fans could not: start recruiting other brands to the cause, or start catching the attention of others outlets who might support the soap opera anew? Or is there no episode at all come Monday, the campaign cancelled just like the shows? Only time will tell...
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communciations, a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Ford was previously the MIT Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.