While soaps themselves have complicated stories involving romance, betrayal, and dark family secrets, the story behind the term "soap opera" is simple and squeaky clean.
In the 1920s, the radio industry desperately wanted advertisers to help increase station ratings and profits. Radio executives managed to convince businesses that sold household goods to sponsor radio shows. To do this, they needed the programming to appeal to the main consumers of household goods. Since most wives and mothers stayed at home, female homemakers fit the bill. Thus, the daytime serial was born.
It didn't take long for radio networks to get in on the deal. Procter & Gamble's Oxydol soap powder sponsored a popular daytime serial drama in 1933. Ultimately, Procter & Gamble began to both sponsor and produce the radio shows, which became known as "soap operas." In the 1950s and 1960s, many of the first televised soaps were sponsored and produced by Procter & Gamble.
The name stuck - and so did the sponsors, for the most part. The Young & the Restless and As the World Turns are still sponsored, in part, by Procter & Gamble, but a much broader array of advertisers now support soaps, for many of the same reasons Procter & Gamble did in the 1930s. In more recent years, Procter & Gamble and other sponsors have begun focusing on how to move soaps online.