Yet she doesn't do structured brand-integration deals or, technically, at least, live commercials. And her company, Harpo Productions, tightly controls advance and post-publicity about the praise that gets parceled out. "No one tells Oprah what to say," said one PR professional. And, indeed, that may be much of the commercial appeal of Oprah Winfrey, America's foremost arbiter of middlebrow taste.
She is -- by the estimate of PR pros who besiege her producers for a chance to have their brands reflect the warm light of Oprah's presence -- the very pinnacle of product publicity.
And yet, despite Oprah Winfrey's and Harpo Productions' dogged efforts to protect her brand and, by extension, the many smaller ones that draw energy from it, Oprah has taken some notable dings lately, largely of her own making.
Church and state
Her endorsement of Barack Obama clearly helped Chicago's favorite son become a front-runner but also raised Ms. Winfrey's unfavorable ratings, allowing her to be overtaken by none other than daytime-talk rival Ellen DeGeneres as the most popular celebrity in the U.S. in a Harris Interactive poll earlier this year.
Ms. Winfrey's later endorsement of new-age religion guru Eckart Tolle may seem a safer bet than her former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But it also angered some conservative Christians and inspired the American Family Association to attack the once-unassailable Ms. Winfrey.
All of this seems to leads to one question for marketers: Is it worth the trouble? Sliding approval ratings or no, getting on "Oprah" remains "the gold standard," as one PR person put it.
Consider that a mere rerun of an "Oprah" show in which Dolly Parton appeared in December 2003 boosted sales of her CD 70% and pushed it up nine slots to No. 4 on the Billboard charts.
Boudreaux's Butt Paste got mentions and features on a lot of shows in 2004, including NBC's "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and ESPN, but it was an appearance by founder George Boudreaux on a "Quirky Ways People Have Gotten Rich" episode that crashed the brand's website with 70,000 hits.
An appearance on the same episode by Build-A-Bear Workshop CEO Maxine Clark the year before the company went public produced fears among some analysts the following year about the difficult comparisons created by the consequent two-quarter sales bump.
Since Ms. Winfrey selected Mr. Tolle's "A New Earth" for her book club earlier this year, the club has gained more than 1 million members, and Oprah.com has logged more than 30 million streams and downloads of related webinar classes, according Harpo.
So how do you get your brand on "Oprah"? It helps a whole lot if Oprah likes your brand or its ads. It helps more still if Oprah's producers like you. And it possibly helps even more if Oprah likes you or the person endorsing your brand.
Oh, and another, murkier point: Some PR people believe it may help to "do a sponsorship," as one put it.
Both Harpo and marketers, however, deny quid pro quos. And the successes of such smaller brands as Kitchen Aid and Dolly Parton indicate one need not pay to play on "Oprah."
Yet Harpo, in a statement, leaves things a tad vague on that point. "There's been a constant and unwavering stream of unsolicited product pitches for the show," a spokeswoman said. "Editorial and creative decisions drive mentions and product inclusions on the show. If a brand gets mentioned, it is as often serendipity as it is business. When we do partner with brands, it is usually because we have an editorial direction we're pursuing, and their partnership enhances the editorial content of the show."
TNS Media Intelligence data appear to show little connection between being a big spender and getting a lot of "free" publicity.
Few brands have had better luck on Oprah than Unilever's Dove. It's had three major segments on the show in 2005, 2006 and 2007, respectively, each handled by independent Edelman, New York. All focused on ads from its "Campaign for Real Beauty" by Ogilvy & Mather. It just so happens that the campaign kicked off in late 2004 with ads and other tie-ins with Hearst's O, The Oprah Magazine and Oprah.com.
Raising eyebrows in a Wall Street Journal interview in October 2005, Silvia Lagnado, then Unilever's global brand director on Dove, said: "Just last week, we started a relationship with Oprah. We are sponsoring her show. She mentioned the Dove products on the show and had the women in our ads in their underwear in the show."
"I'm sure Oprah really does like the ads," author Virginia Postrel wrote on her Dynamist.com blog. "But I doubt that the 'Dove girls' would be on the show without Unilever's advertising checks. Dove also just happened to choose Oprah's best friend [and O Editor at Large] Gayle King to receive their first Dove Real Beauty Award."
Dove and Harpo, however, deny any direct ad-for-publicity deal. "Dove/Unilever has been a partner with 'The Oprah Winfrey Show,' Oprah.com, and O, The Oprah Magazine for more than four years, and their values and creative approach are very much in line with ours," Harpo's spokeswoman said.
In fact, TNS data indicate that Unilever's chief rivals have been spending far more on Oprah properties without getting anywhere near the in-program love.
True, Unilever spent $16.4 million on the syndicated TV show and $32.8 million on the magazine and website for a total of $49.2 million in the past four years. Its spending on the magazine and its website more than doubled to $12.7 million between 2004 and 2007.
But Unilever's rivals, including Procter & Gamble Co. ($74.1 million), L'Oréal ($49.3 million) and Johnson & Johnson ($71.5 million), have outspent the company in the period.
The June issue of the Oprah magazine is either a testament to a sturdy Chinese wall between editorial and advertising in the Harpo-Hearst alliance or the world's subtlest brand integration.
The cover story, "We're Starting a Beauty Revolution! (Say Bye-Bye to Feeling Bad About Your Looks)," appears ripped from the "Campaign for Real Beauty" education materials, including photography that looks almost exactly like Dove's 2005 ads, only the women have clothes on over their underwear. Yet there's no reference to Dove in the article, nor a single ad from Dove or Unilever in the book.
Then again, it's not out of the question that that award for Ms. King may have done some good.
Yet serendipity lives. Another PR rep said despite being barraged by pitches, "Oprah's people are very easy to deal with." An appearance by one of the rep's pitchwomen on the show led to an entirely impromptu, if very much welcome, on-air endorsement of the product by Ms. Winfrey.
With or without formal ad spending, the direct cost of getting your brand on "Oprah" and other shows appears to be rising. As more brands struggle for "free" publicity, Oprah-style "big gives" can help seal the deal.
Demand from shows for free products for audience members is rising, said the PR rep, noting a request from "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" for free merchandise valued at more than a quarter-million dollars for one recent appearance.
With the potential for serious money changing hands even in "unpaid" placements, the rules for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" about how an appearance can be marketed could get tougher to swallow.
Though P&G executives were extremely pleased with an April appearance on "Oprah" by Salma Hayek, spokeswoman for Pampers' "One pack equals one vaccine" UNICEF promotion, it had been a little tougher two nights before. A story on AdAge.com about the appearance included a reference to giveaways of vaccines on behalf of audience members -- a no-no under Harpo ground rules prohibiting release of details, prompting hurried Sunday-night requests to take the story down until the show aired the next morning.
Harpo also wasn't pleased with a perceived implication that Oprah was endorsing Pampers or its program, prompting an e-mail from P&G that said, "We were so happy that Oprah provided us with an editorial platform upon which to launch this life-saving program," but "Oprah is in no way a spokesperson or endorser of our program."
Harpo said brands selected for Oprah's annual Favorite Things, as well as Oprah's Book Club selections, may note those facts and link back to Oprah.com. Other references, such as the sorts of "As seen on Oprah" claims used by Boudreaux's Butt Paste, aren't approved.
"Oprah understands her brand and will push back on an advertiser if part of their proposals don't mesh with it," said an ad-agency executive who has done several client deals with her TV show. "The word 'Oprah' is powerful, so she has to protect it, and it may be becoming harder."
No advance notice
Unlike appearances on some other shows, such as "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," advance news of "Oprah" appearances generally needs to be embargoed and publicity plans cleared through Harpo, according to PR reps.
By contrast, when P&G's Tide Coldwater ran a promotion providing money to turn on the holiday lights in New Orleans in 2006, Ms. DeGeneres flipped the switch at the event, and details of the show in which it appeared were widely released in advance.
Beyond that, Ms. DeGeneres does live commercials and more elaborate structured deals. Her show, in fact, was the cornerstone of a December restage of P&G's Head & Shoulders -- including rollout of the brand's first conditioner lineup -- that included sampling, online, outdoor and TV advertising behind a "mystery brand" revealed on the Dec. 13 show.
While many other factors figure in the brands' performance, Head & Shoulders has fared considerably better since its December restage than P&G's Pantene, backed by an appearance on "Oprah" a month earlier.
Head & Shoulders sales were up "in the high teens" last quarter, according to P&G, after the elaborate integrated program in December. Pantene, which benefited from an appearance by Hilary Swank touting its Beautiful Lengths program to generate hair donations for wigs for cancer patients, has lost share the past two quarters.
(Marina Maher Communications* handles PR for Head & Shoulders. Devries handles PR for Pantene. Saatchi & Saatchi handles advertising for Head & Shoulders, while Grey Group handles Pantene.)
Limits to O's powers
Clearly, Oprah has had a huge impact on small brands and highly fragmented markets such as books and music. But it's less clear she alone can move the needle for big brands. Her embrace of "Tar-zhay" in the early 1990s helped give Target cachet. Then again, she also did an extensive 1998 segment in which she refurbished a living room entirely with housewares from Wal-Mart, which has remained one of the company's weakest departments for a decade. Interestingly, Wal-Mart has outspent Target more than 2-to-1 on "Oprah" the past four years, and outspent Target $43.7 million to $33.8 million overall across Oprah's TV, print and web properties, per TNS.
An unscripted segment on Oprah offers the element of surprise, but some marketers prefer the predictability of more-structured deals, such as those offered by ABC's "The View," whose on-air hosts participate in and help create elaborate, clearly compensated, brand integrations.
Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s multi-brand Room-A-Day Giveaway program recently completed its second year on "The View," and while the company is still evaluating results, it generated 10 million sweepstakes entries this year, double the 5 million in year one, said Laura Keely, director-consumer promotion marketing for K-C. This year's program included considerable advertising, buzz building and online-widget distribution in advance of the January launch.
"There are probably some smaller efforts where a mention on a TV program is a great thing," she said. "This was a full-scale promotion where we were replacing a multibrand [national newspaper coupon insert], and we needed to have performance. [That meant we] had things hammered out and agreed to well in advance."
But Oprah's spontaneity may do brands more good in the long run than the opportunity to integrate multiple elements and script the integration, said marketing consultant Al Ries. "She communicates extremely well, so the believability of what she's saying is just off the charts," he said. "The more advance promotion that happens with a show, the more people will think it's fixed. The minute you have posters telling people to watch Oprah next week, the more people will think the endorsement is paid for."
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Contributing: Jean Halliday
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Devries handles PR for Head & Shoulders.