Q&A: Oprah Expert on How Winfrey’s Brand Changed America

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Oprah Winfrey speaks on a panel during the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) Television Critics Association winter press tour on January 6, 2011.

Oprah’s final episode airs today—but the power of her brand lives on.

To mark the end of Oprah’s 25-year run as the queen of daytime talk, NewsFeed spoke with Craig Garthwaite, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a bona fide Oprah expert.

How would you describe Oprah’s marketing influence? 

Oprah has a long history of influencing the purchasing habits of her viewers and readers. She uses her “Favorite Things” list to promote products from a wide variety of businesses and provides her certification on their quality. This results in dramatic changes in sales. Following their inclusion on Oprah’s annual Favorite Things list, businesses often receive hundreds of thousands of website hits, and many of them have seen their sales more than double. Oprah’s Book Club is a clear example of her influence. For example, the novel Anna Karenina sold 11,648 units in the 12 weeks before inclusion in the Book Club. In the 12 weeks following inclusion, Anna Karenina sold 643,122 units—a staggering increase of 5,421%.

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Do you think she impacts the way people live, too?

I think it is clear that Oprah has influence. She has changed her viewers’ purchasing habits and, notably, people’s eating habits. Oprah’s chef has sold over 8 million copies of her cookbook of Oprah’s “Favorite Recipes.” Plus, recall the dramatic impact that Oprah had on the beef industry after her show discussed ground beef and mad cow disease. One woman even writes a blog tracking one year of her life following Oprah’s advice.

Why have viewers trusted Oprah all these years?

I don’t think there is a definitive answer to why Oprah has had such a significant impact on Americans over so many years. Certainly some portion of it has to do with the trust that people place in her advice and recommendations. This might be because she is rarely, if ever, a paid spokesperson for a product, giving her recommendations more credibility.

You’ve conducted extensive research on Oprah’s role in the 2008 presidential election. Did she actually influence voters?

Along with Timothy J. Moore of the University of Maryland, I analyzed the effect of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of President Obama during the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary. By examining county level differences in the circulation of her magazine along with difference in vote totals, we found that she was responsible for approximately one million extra votes for the President. While there are many other factors that decide the winner of an election, this amount was greater than the difference in total votes between the President and then-Senator Clinton in our sample of states.

(VIDEO: Oprah’s effect on the 2008 presidential election)

If she had backed Hillary, would it have made a difference in the outcome?

It is really hard to say what the impact would have been. Looking at the majority of her viewers, we would generally expect that they are, on many dimensions, more like the average Clinton voter than the average Obama voter. Therefore, if many of her followers were already going to vote for Senator Clinton, her endorsement may have had less of a causal effect. It would be hard to attribute votes to Oprah’s influence if those voters were going to choose that candidate anyway.

Does she cut across demographics—political, racial or otherwise?

Oprah attracts a wide variety of followers. Comparing at the circulation of her magazine to the 2000 United States Census, her readers are disproportionately women who attended college, between the ages of 25-64, married, and work in professional occupations. Readers are evenly distributed across the country. The percentage of readers estimated to be white is 70%, slightly smaller than the 75% in the general population. The African-American readership is estimated to be 23%, 11 percentage points higher than in the general population. Also, seven percent of Hispanics are estimated to be readers, which is six percentage points lower than in the general population.

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What effect will her departure have on daytime TV?

The departure of the number one rated talk show is going to change the daytime television landscape. It is unclear if anyone else could have the same kind of impact Oprah eventually achieved. This is due to many factors, perhaps the most important being that viewers today have so many more options for niche programming than they did when Oprah first started. Oprah had many years to build a loyal following, which may not be possible for talk show personalities in today’s entertainment landscape. This is going to make it hard to have millions of people coalesce around one celebrity again.

Lady Gaga recently replaced Oprah as the most powerful celebrity on the Forbes 100 list. Do you think she can eventually wield as much influence as Oprah?

I think it is impossible for me to say whether Lady Gaga influences people to the same degree as Oprah. While Lady Gaga’s followers might be more dedicated, as seen by the long wait outside for her recent Saturday Night Live appearance, they are not nearly as numerous or diverse. Keep in mind, Oprah is a celebrity of historic proportions. As we discuss in our study, she has been named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people six times—more than any other individual, including the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, George Clooney and Rupert Murdoch. Furthermore, she was one of only four people (along with Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, and Pope John Paul II) to be named to Time’s list of the most influential people in both the 20th and 21st century.

(MORE: See Oprah in TIME’s annual list of the world’s most influential people)