Soap operas put the spotlight on Brazil's new middle class

Traditionally soap operas in Brazil were aspirational, often starring wealthy characters. But now they are intended to reflect the lifestyle of the new middle class that rose up over the past decade.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Two of Brazil's recent primetime TV shows feature the country's rising star of the moment: the new middle class. Cheias de Charme, or Full of Charm, just concluded a five-month run at 7 p.m., receiving an average viewership of 34 points, higher than recent novelas, or soap operas, in the same time slot. Avenida Brasil, Globo's 9 p.m. novela, ends in several weeks and enjoys a large viewership, reaching up to 65 percent of Brazilian TVs. The fact that two of the most watched television programs on Brazil's most watched television network showcased this group is telling, with a number of interesting implications. 

Traditionally, novelas were aspirational, often starring wealthy characters. Now, with the two novelas this year, they're intended to be relatable, a reflection of the tens of millions from the C class, or the new middle class. "When we portrayed poor people, they were always dreaming of leaving their suburbs and striking it rich. But now we want to show a place that, in spite of being poor, is cheerful and warm, a place where there can be prosperity,” Ricardo Waddington, coordinator of Avenida Brasil told Folha de São Paulo. Showing members of the new middle class flourishing represents a new type of aspiration. "Here in Brazil, there's a real problem in understanding how the lower middle class thinks. This lower class doesn't hold up the elite as a model. The reference for these people is not the rich, but rather the neighbor who succeeded," Renato Meirelles, CEO of Data Popular – a marketing firm specializing in the middle and lower classes – told the AP.

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In some ways, the novelas are glorifying parts of Brazilian culture long considered inferior by the upper class. The two novelas offer insight into what the new middle class is like: how they dress, speak, and consume – or at least, Globo's vision of these elements. The novelas prominently feature working class neighborhoods, as well as using types of music popular with the new middle class like pagode and forró. Avenida Brasil's costume designer went out to Rio suburbs Bangú and Madureira for inspiration, as well as incorporating what singers and soccer players from working-class neighborhoods wear.

 The shows have used aggressive marketing both during commercials and offscreen for the new middle class. Commercials during the show target the C class, with everything from electronics stores to ... [shoe obsession].

As with many novelas, the products used on the show become must-have items, particularly for women, and despite featuring new middle class styles, Avenida Brasil is no exception. Pants and jewelry worn by the Suelen character have been a hit across the country. Globo licensed six lines of products made up from 50 items from Avenida Brasil alone. Riding on the metro in Rio, you can spot an ad labeled "Da TV para você" (from the TV to you), advertising hair products featured on the novela. You can even see ads on some of Rio's highways advertising the Guadalupe Mall as featured on Avenida Brasil.

Targeting the new middle class is an important marketing strategy, given the group's buying power and what the new middle class is purchasing. A recent IBGE study found that the C class spends more money on durable goods like cars, home appliances, and medicine than on food, education, and culture. The C class also helped drive Brazil's credit boom, and in Rio, one can buy a coconut or a meat skewer from a street vendor with a credit or debit card in some cases. As a result, the new middle class is quickly racking up debt; a September Kantar Worldpanel survey found that of Brazil's five social classes (ranging from A, the wealthiest to E, the poorest), the C class is the only one in which people spend more than they earn.

But being the center of one of the country's most watched shows doesn't mean that the traditional middle class or the upper class are celebrating the ascension of millions of Brazilians into the C class.

In fact, there's evidence that some are uncomfortable with this social group – long considered relegated to the outskirts of large cities and outside of spaces frequented by the the well-off – suddenly having money and access. This conflict has been obvious, particularly in places like airports where members of the new middle class rarely set foot before. But now it's statistically proven: A Data Popular survey found that a large portion of the wealthier sectors of Brazil are unhappy with the new middle class. The study showed that 55 percent of upper class consumers believe products should have separate versions "for the rich and the poor;" 48 percent believe the quality of services declined with the rise of the new middle class; 50 percent prefer going to places occupied by members of the "same social class"; 16 percent believe "poorly dressed" people should be barred from certain places; and 26 percent believe subways would bring "undesirables" to their neighborhoods. You also need look no further than Classe Média Sofre, a blog that details some of these tensions the traditional middle class and upper classes have with the new middle class.

"You're seeing people going to the theater or taking a flight for the first time ever, and the first time is very important," Marcelo Neri, head of research institute Ipea and Brazil's new middle class guru told O Público. "But it's a class that isn't accustomed to reading. This creates prejudice from the upper class. There's class conflict at the airports, since the elite always had empty airports to themselves. The new middle class makes them uncomfortable. Culturally, there are a lot of things happening but it's not traditional culture. It's in the periphery of cities."

The novelas may also include less obvious subtext about new middle class culture. Avenida Brasil writer João Emanuel Carneiro described the so-called "poor-rich" characters on the show as those who are "simple people who became rich but maintained their suburban ways." In describing how these characters figure into the show, columnist Mauricio Stycer points out the protagonist's "more subtle objective is to...'civilize' the poor-rich." Será?

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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