Soap and Selling: At Retail Stores, Daytime TV Stars Lather Up Sales

The 'soap festival,' tried and true at malls, may reach new heights at Disney/ABC

Football stars and aluminum-siding symposiums work well, but if you want to attract a real crowd of happy shoppers to the mall, then get Randolph Mantooth or Thaao Penghlis. It is a lesson well learned by mall managers across the country, who for years have relied on the largely male icons of American daytime television to entice the largely female audience that venerates them into their stores.

Using soap opera stars to promote sales and grand openings has become a well-established - and lucrative - practice used by retailers to lure customers inside their stores. Once a crude contraption used primarily to promote the networks' local affiliates, the traveling soap show has become a well-oiled marketing machine with a life of its own. National retail outlets like Sears and Target often host more than 100 such events every year.

It was, as soap-promoter Allan Sugarman describes it, an idea so simple that nobody would listen to it when he and his wife, Joyce Becker, first suggested it to retailers 20 years ago. Soap stars had been doing publicity tours for years, but it seems nobody realized that there was money in it if actors were used to promote retail venues, not just the networks that hired them.

Then, at a suburban Dallas mall in 1978, there was an epiphany of sorts. "Joyce and I came out of the mall manager's office," Mr. Sugarman recalls, "and we found 5,000 people waiting for us to begin the show. We just looked at each other ... and said, 'This is it,' " - the evidence they needed to get retailers to buy into the idea.

The soap industry itself has taken a mostly ambivalent attitude to the coming of age of the independent soap promoter, especially since it encourages already-busy actors to moonlight on the mall circuit. "It's sort of like preaching to the choir," says Phil Dixson, a soap-opera producer in New York. "It's hard to justify losing your top actors for two shows so that they can attract 400 fans at the mall someplace. As far as having a positive impact on the [TV-audience] ratings, it's hardly a blip on the radar screen."

But soap actors, eager to to close the yawning income gap with their prime-time cousins, are often attracted to the deals promoters and retailers offer. The most successful actors make up to $10,000 per appearance, working as many as 30 promotional events a year. "It has actually become a lucrative part of being a daytime star," says Sallie Schoneboom, head of ABC daytime publicity. "Many of the actors have agents to book them on these shows."

Soap actors' success as retail promoters seems proof of their adaptation to the niche allotted them in the entertainment universe. "The soap stars are like modern day patent-medicine salesmen," says Morris Holbrook, a business professor at Columbia University in New York. "That's why they are on TV - to sell detergent. The [shopping center] appearances are a logical extension of what they are doing."

And most retailers seem happy to have them.

Last week, an appearance by soap actor Peter Bergman at a Mervyn's grand opening near St. Paul, Minn., "was a terrific draw for us," says store manager Jeanette McClendon. The star of CBS's "The Young and The Restless," Mr. Bergman drew "about 200 plus" fans to the store - close to what former football great Joe Montana mustered during a similar appearance at the retail chain.

So what is it that attracts waves of star-struck soap fans to retail outlets?

In most cases, it is not raw star power or celebrity, which few soap actors possess. Rather, observers say, it is the storylines that actors and their audiences are caught up in that bring in potential shoppers. Sugarman, who runs Soap Opera Festivals Inc. in Morganville, N.J., says, "The soap casts change regularly. So when somebody's character is killed off or sent upstairs to the attic to clean skis and is never heard from again, people don't care anymore." Cold storylines usually mean cold sales, he says. "If nobody shows up, or the audience only asks questions about other characters on the show, it's a good sign that the actor's storyline isn't working"

At its best, soap-based promoting is an economical way for retailers to reach an intensely loyal audience that can be relied upon to make a trip to the mall to see their favorite daytime star. "Soap stars are affordable, and they reach the local audience, especially the women ... who spend all the money anyway," says Tina Shaw, former marketing director for a large mall chain. "The soap events never flop, and we have had a lot of flops over the years.... If you can get two or three thousand people to a mall on a single day, that means you will make money."

Soap-based retailing might seem destined to remain a well-established, but minor undercurrent in America's marketing mainstream. But Walt Disney Company and its recently purchased ABC network hope to take the format further. Last month, Disney/ABC announced plans for a "Super Soap Weekend" to be held at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park October 19-20. If all goes as planned, corporate "synergy" will rocket a tried-and-true marketing formula to new and dizzying heights.

"I don't mean to hype this," says Michael Kape, editor of an Atlanta-based soap weekly, "But Disney is going to make a fortune. They own the MGM-Disney theme park, and they can require their own actors to show up for the event." Theme park promotions with soap stars are nothing new, but observers say that the latest Disney/ABC effort will be carried out on an unprecedented scale. Kape believes that the promotional muscle of the ABC network, along with Disney's ability to funnel legions of soap fans through its airline and hotel partners, will fatten the already hefty cash cow.

Outsiders, including Dixson and Sugarman, are watching to see what happens - and whether it is possible for other players to get in on the big-time game.

"The real question," says Dixson, "is whether you really need to be a Disney or an ABC to do something like this."

Says Sugarman, optimistically, "Right now we are just touching the tip of the iceberg for using soap stars to sell."

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