A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why are "soap operas" called that?

August 27, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the deal with soap operas? I mean, are they called that because they're operas that are clean? Shed some light on this burning question!

As usual, Robbie, the answer lies on the bottom line.

A long, long time ago, daytime dramas were viewed almost exclusively by women, as they comprised a smaller percentage of the workforce. When they weren't watching the telly, they were doing what June Cleaver had taught all good housewives to do: cooking and cleaning. And when they were cleaning, they used soaps of all kinds: dish soap, laundry soap, all-purpose cleansers, etc. The Madison Avenue guys all knew this (after all, their wives were at home doing all this cleaning while they were at work coming up with ad campaigns for soap companies), so they figured that commercials for soap would garner the most customers if they were shown during the daytime dramas. Hence, the soap companies became the primary sponsors for daytime TV, and the term "soap opera" was born.

While I haven't sat through an hour of Susan Lucci playing Erica lately, I'd venture to guess that things haven't changed all that much from the time when she started her role: you'll probably still find more commercials for Tide during the day than you will for the next pay-per-view WWF wrestlefest.

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