BRASILIA, Brazil -- In South America, soap operas are an immensely popular genre. And in Brazil, the biggest country and economy in the region, they are the mirror of the nation's newfound economic success.
The new Brazilian middle class, commonly referred to here as the "C-class," is becoming the focus of marketers and soap opera writers, both eager to cash in on the culture and tastes of this huge swath of the Brazilian population.
The phenomenon is evident in one of the most popular programs in the nation, the 9 pm soap opera Avenida Brasil on Globo TV (which is itself, in a reflection of Brazil's growing clout, the second-biggest TV network in the world by revenue behind ABC.) The prime-time soap has gone to extreme lengths to accurately display this new middle class, with the whole drama focusing on characters living in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, something that had not been tried before in Brazilian TV.
Soap operas have usually focused on the swanky neighborhoods of Rio and São Paulo, where the A and B classes live, or the top of Brazilian society, according to a now-popular A-to-E classification. In this analysis, people in the C-class are the backbone of Brazil's new consumer economy, and soap operas are increasingly featuring the way they live.
The main story line of Avenida Brasil is the obsessive quest for revenge by Nina/Rita, who as a child was abandoned in a garbage dump in Rio by her evil stepmother Carminha and her lover Max, after they both rob and push Nina's father to his death. Years later, Nina returns and gets herself employed as a cook in the suburban mansion of Tufão, a rich (and cuckolded) former football star who is now married to Carminha.
The soap, or novela, as they are called in Portuguese, has been so successful that it has garnered a market share average of 38 points in the greater São Paulo area alone, according to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics. That means 65 percent of all televisions in Brazil are at some point tuned in to Avenida Brasil.
This has not escaped the attention of marketers, who are always eager to reach this new mass of Brazilian consumers. Evidence of this are the endless commercials for new flat-screen TVs, mobile phones and refrigerators that appear when this novela and others air.
"Brazilian novelas have always had suburban characters ever since the 1970s and 1980s. What is different now is that mainstream TV networks are focusing much more on what the marketers call the 'new middle class' or the C-class," said Heloisa Buarque de Almeida, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo. "This is a section of the population that has ascended economically since the years of the Lula government, and they are consuming much more now."
Middle Class On $875 A Month
Granted, the C-class isn't making a lot, in absolute terms, when compared to similar earners in Europe or the U.S. But in a developing country, where the average family income for the upper levels of the C-class is around R$1,750 a month or $875, they make enough to have money left for disposable income.
And that's also enough money to attract advertisers that have already flocked to Brazil's fast-growing economy, Almeida said. "In the 1980s and 1990s, advertisers were much more focused on the A and B upper classes. It is only fairly recently that they have realized the significant volume of consumption of the more popular classes. So that is why 'Avenida Brasil' is so focused on characters that came from the poorer classes but who have succeeded in moving up into the middle classes."
José Afonso Mazzon, a professor of marketing at the University of São Paulo, has studied this social mobility phenomenon, and he is going to publish his findings, along with Professor Wagner A. Kamakura of Duke University, in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, in the first semester of 2013. Titled "Social Class and Consumption in an Emerging Economy," their study looks at the consumption patterns of all social classes in Brazil. Mazzon said that there had been a noticeable increase in disposable income starting in 2003, which is the same year that the government of then-President Luis Inácio 'Lula' da Silva greatly expanded the Bolsa Familia wealth transfer program through monthly government payments to the poorest of families.
"We saw a huge shift in spending patterns of the C-class population starting from 2003, when the Bolsa Familia program freed some of their income to be spent on other things than just basic necessities," explained Mazzon. "The yearly growth in the minimum salary, always above the inflation level, also helped propel consumers in the lower classes to eat out more, go on trips, buy more meat, chicken, and fish, and spend more of their income on personal beauty goods such as shampoos, soaps, perfumes and manicures."
Mazzon now believes that 14 million families are part of the C-class, which if multiplied by four, means that 56 million Brazilians have landed in this new middle class, or roughly one-third of the population. In contrast, he estimates that only 25 percent of the population is in the A and B classes, giving advertisers good reason to focus on the C segment.
Language, Music, Fashion
But Avenida Brasil is not only a reflection of this new middle class. It also influences popular culture, from its catchy soundtrack to the jewelry that the main characters wear and that people now want to buy.
Not that jewelry and social mobility can buy class. The producers know this, and Avenida Brasil's characters are, despite their newfound money, still a little unrefined. One of the directors recently told the Folha de São Paulo that she studied how people spoke in the suburbs and then instructed the actors playing Tufão's family to speak in a similar manner.
"I told all of them to speak at the same time, one on top of the other, sort of shouting, while they are being filmed having meals around the dining table," said Amora Mautner, who as one of the many directors on the soap is tasked with filming Tufão's family. "I think of Tufão as a nice version of Tony Soprano."
The novela's opening song "Dança com Tudo," penned by the relatively unknown songwriter Robson Moura, has been a big hit. Many users of social media use the song's opening line of "Oi, oi, oi," in their many snarky Twitter messages about the show.
"This song has been a big hit because it's so catchy," said Jads Antunes, 26, who works in public relations and often uses "Oi, oi, oi" in his Tweets about the soap opera.
Even in the realm of costume jewelry, Avenida Brasil is having an effect, with the earrings used by the character Suelen and the many bracelets and necklaces worn by Carminha a big hit among women in markets across the country.
"Suelen's long earring has been very popular among my customers," said Ana, 27, who has been selling women's costume jewelry at Brasilia's Feira dos Importados market for five years. "I've sold out of Carminha's saint medallion necklace," she said, adding that it was a little more expensive, at R$65 or $32.50, than her other items. At the stall of another seller named Milena, Carminha's gold-toned bracelets were fast sellers at R$35 ($17.50) for a shiny set of three.
Yet, for all its consumerist implications, Avenida Brasil is as much the image of the new Brazil as it is steeped in a traditional Latin American trope: the hyper-dramatic novela full of intrigue and passion, where the inevitable character of the cruel stepmother is the focus of everybody's hatred. This, too, has an economic consequence. Milena, the bracelet vendor, summed it up when explaining why Carminha's jewelry wasn't selling as fast as the other characters': "It's because she's evil, so there's not that much demand for all of her stuff."