Wall Street was all aflutter Monday about “the Oprah effect.”
She bought 10% of Weight Watchers and the company’s stock soared. Big news.
But anyone who follows pop culture has watched Oprah’s turn-to-gold touch for decades — on books and magazines, movies and television, fashion and lifestyle products, on politics and political causes, and on making stars out of nobodies she has embraced.
Ever heard of psychologist Dr. Phil and health-expert Dr. Oz before Oprah reached out and touched them? Alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra and financial adviser Suze Orman? Lifestyle designer Nate Berkus?
They’re all celebrities now, after years of appearances on Oprah’s daytime talk show led to their own TV shows.
Oprah’s Favorite Things, products she has featured on her show or in her successful magazine, O, very shortly become America’s favorite things after she spotlights them.
Not to mention: Would Barack Obama be where he is now had Oprah not helped elect him president?
Along with Obama, Oprah is among the most influential African-Americans in the nation’s history; certainly, she’s the richest, having made billions over the years.
Now her Midas touch on Main Street has now moved to Wall Street, says Howard Bragman, chairman and founder of 15 Minutes Public Relations, who’s known Oprah since her Chicago local-TV days 30 years ago.
“As much power as Oprah has, she has used her power for good — she hasn’t invested to just watch her stock go up.” says Bragman. “And the reason she is so powerful is her authenticity. She gets involved in things she believes in…She does well by doing good.
“And as long as she remains true to herself and her life and to how things affect her emotionally and physically, she will continue to have this effect.”
The Oprah effect (there was even a TV documentary about the phenomenon in 2009) is most dramatically obvious in publishing and book sales, after she created her Oprah’s Book Club in 1996.
Example: Toni Morrison — whom Oprah loves and whose books were chosen four times (the most individual picks for one author) for the club — got a bigger sales boost from Oprah than from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
She and her club, which was created for her long-running daytime talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, had a huge impact, not just on the publishing industry and book sales but on the idea of reading for pleasure itself.
Twenty of her picks made it to No. 1 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list. (The Oprah pick with the most consecutive weeks at No. 1 was Ekhart Tolle’s A New Earth at 11 weeks.)
After she left her talk show, she relaunched the Book Club as 2.0 in 2012 and has made picks much less frequently than she did during her talk show’s heyday. Some have become best sellers, proving that the “Oprah Effect” remains.
But don’t mess with Oprah: In 2001, when she picked author Jonathan Franzen’s latest book and invited him on her show, he publicly dissed her literary standards, suggesting that going on TV threatened his place in “the high-art literary tradition.” Bam. Oprah politely withdrew the invitation, and most everyone, including in the “high-art literary” world, dissed him as arrogant and ungrateful.
Oprah’s endorsement can move merchandise in a big way. When DreamTime’s Foot Cozys, aromatherapy slippers, were featured in 2002, sales spiked to 20,000 pairs per month (up from 3,000) and became DreamTime’s best-selling product that year.
“There’s never been any question that when Oprah speaks, people listen — her word is very powerful,” says Bragman. “If she picks a book, books sales go through the roof. But it’s not been a moving moment for publisher’s stock,” as in the Weight Watchers deal.
But what about OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which she launched in January 2011? It was not an immediate wild success along the lines of her talk show.
“It’s doing a lot better,” says Bragman. “It got a lot of attention when it launched and it was not what people thought it should be. But she’s turned it around, it’s better managed, it has a much better vision. OWN is doing just fine, thank you.”
Don’t forget her career as an actress: She’s done only a handful of movies but she earned an Oscar nomination for her first role (1985’s The Color Purple), another for 2013’s The Butler, and her lead in a 1998 adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved, was acclaimed.
Along with her role in 2014’s Selma, Oprah’s film career shows she picks projects that depict, either in fiction or non-fiction, the history of the African-American experience — a history she cares about and wants America to know more about. Would these films get made without her?
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