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Oprah's Ultimate Awkward Product Placement

Countown to Oz Trip Touts McD's as Hip Aussie Hangout

By Published on . 15

CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- In a lead-up to her Ultimate Australian Adventure, Oprah Winfrey last week aired Oprah's Aussie Countdown, which featured a segment with a report by Australian TV personality Carrie Bickmore. Ms. Bickmore's report, meant to educate the audience on Australian culture, sparked an upset when she said Australians like to spend time at "hip hangouts" called McDonald's.

Oprah Winfrey announces her Ultimate Australian Adventure.
Oprah Winfrey announces her Ultimate Australian Adventure. Credit: Harpo, Inc.
After explaining that in Australia men are called "blokes" and women "sheilas," Ms. Bickmore let out a bizarre and forced product placement for McDonald's McCafe. "While there are a lot of differences, there is one comforting similarity," she said in the segment. "While you have your diners, we have McCafes. Guys come for business meetings; girls come for a catch-up over coffee. It's all just a little bit fancy. ... In Australia, McDonald's are called Maccas. They're hip hangouts where people sip gourmet coffees in the McCafes and dine from a menu exclusive to Australia."

Tourism Australia is partnering with "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and will see Ms. Winfrey, her correspondents and 300 viewers travel on an eight-day trip to Australia to film at least two episodes of the program during December. "The Oprah Winfrey" show airs in Australia on the Ten Network, where Ms. Bickmore is employed.

McDonald's did not comment for this story on whether the fast feeder sponsored any parts of the show, referring calls to Harpo Productions, the company that produces "The Oprah Winfrey Show." A spokesman for Harpo confirmed that McDonald's was a sponsor for the Aussie Countdown episode, along with Qantas (an audience member received a free trip for two to Australia), Motorola (audience members received free phones) and Tourism Australia, which is covering the ground costs of the visit (no money is going directly to Harpo). The spokesman added that as is customary with sponsors of the show, their promotional consideration was acknowledged as part of the broadcast.

With a celebrity like Ms. Winfrey, who regularly engages in sponsorships and product placements, can one misguided product placement damage brand Oprah? It's not likely. "In terms of Oprah brand, it's an awfully strong one. You always worry about death by 1,000 cuts, but it would have to become a pattern where there are a lot of these types of promotions," said Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. "It would have to be much worse. She's got some really loyal fans. People give her the benefit of the doubt. But as a one-off, people might think this is a little weird."

Mr. Keller added that in defense of Ms. Winfrey, it's possible she wanted to take an American icon and integrate it into her Australian trip. And while the McCafe reference may be awkward, especially if it isn't true, Ms. Winfrey and her audience heard it from an Australian TV personality -- and a clunky product placement like the McCafe one is uncharacteristic for Ms. Winfrey. "She's a commercial empire, and she makes money through sponsorships. But it seems like it was taken further than she probably would have wanted," said Claude Singer, principal at branding consultancy Brandsinger and brand strategy professor at New York University and University of Hartford. "I'm sure she'll have plenty of opportunities to make up for it."

"Regardless, in the long run and in the short run, her brand is not affected. The good surrounding this is so much greater than any cultural faux pas," Mr. Singer added, referring to Ms. Winfrey's various charitable donations and giveaways over the years, including the Ultimate Australian Adventure.

As for what Ms. Bickmore described as a McDonald's menu exclusive to Australia, Mr. Keller said, "They used to have the Aussie Burger, but it's not like it's a totally exclusive menu."

Ms. Winfrey is no stranger to sponsorships, and the Australia trip is just another example how much of her business is sponsored. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" will be filmed at the Sydney Opera House, which will temporarily be renamed the Sydney Oprah House -- a branding effort by Tourism Australia, according to Oprah.com.

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