CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- An endorsement from Oprah Winfrey can make even a fledgling product a household name. But what if the daytime-talk-show empress turns on one?
Hain Celestial and other makers of blue corn chips may find themselves in an inadvertent field test in the coming months. Kicking off her 2009 season this week, Ms. Winfrey, who has connected with millions of American women with her struggles to control her weight, announced that she has gained 40 pounds. She blamed a thyroid condition, lack of exercise and the ostensibly healthful snack.
"My drug of choice used to be potato chips," she said. "Now this year, it was organic, multigrain blue chips -- but a bag of them. So you eat a bag of those a day and see what happens if you're not working out."
Ms. Winfrey held a bag of Hain Celestial's Garden of Eatin' blue corn chips on set as a prop, albeit with her hand obscuring the brand name.
Naturally, the segment was a magnet for media pickup. A Google search for "Oprah + blue corn chips" garnered 15,800 sites. The story of Ms. Winfrey's corn-chip addiction made the New York Post and a number of blogs, and the U.S. News & World Report website issued a list of lessons to glean from Ms. Winfrey's weight gain. No. 2: "Seemingly healthful snacks can be anything but." "Don't look at the appealing words and health claims on the front of a packaged food," wrote Katherine Hobson. "Turn it over and read the nutrition label to get the scoop. Better yet, snack on fruits and veggies instead."
One Topix commenter wrote, "The only question that I have is: When did organic blue corn chips become the code word for a bucket of fried chicken?"
According to Nielsen, Ms. Winfrey gets an average of about 6.5 million viewers per show, or about 5% of U.S. homes. While this week's ratings aren't yet available, the episode is expected to be among the season's highest rated, as it was part of "Best Life Week." As an added bonus, Ms. Winfrey dedicated much of the show to New Year's resolutions.
In a statement, Elizabeth Poon, Hain Celestial's category group manager-snacks and beverages, gently suggested that Ms. Winfrey try the single serving size.
'Meant to be shared'
"We are delighted that she loves our Garden of Eatin' Blue Chips, where we are a market leader in the natural/organics space," she said. "However, as you mentioned, if she ate a full bag, one serving is only one ounce, or 15 chips at 140 calories."
There are roughly nine servings in each bag, so an entire bag would equate to roughly 1,260 calories. Each serving additionally has seven grams of fat. "We consider our chips [to be] social chips that are meant to be shared," Ms. Poon said. "For individual consumption, we would recommend our snack size that comes in regular Blue Chips as well as Sesame Blues."
In general, Oprah endorsements have had well-documented positive effects. Just ask President-elect Barack Obama. The talk-show host has also boosted sales for products ranging from Amazon's Kindle to Boudreaux's Butt Paste and even "Anna Karenina." But when the legendary talk-show host turns on someone, the effects can be just as dizzying. Just ask James Frey. If sales suffer, there's also precedent for legal action. Ms. Winfrey made some choice comments about mad-cow disease and the safety of American beef during a 1996 broadcast. When sales fell, she fended off a lawsuit from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
But while blue corn chips enjoy immense popularity among health-conscious snackers, the product has yet to attain megabrand status. According to IRI, Garden of Eatin' blue corn chips ran up $17 million in grocery sales, excluding Wal-Mart and club stores, during the past 52 weeks. Kettle Chips also makes a blue-corn tortilla chip. Kettle did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
Boon for sweet potatoes?
Ms. Winfrey said she will be replacing blue corn chips with sweet potatoes, possibly leading to a boon for the spuds. "The exposure is tremendous. It's great," said Benny Graves, executive secretary for the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. "She's mentioned sweet potatoes before and had some sweet-potato dishes on the show in the past."
Mr. Graves said any Oprah effect would be hard to track, although sales have stayed strong after the usual holiday rush for sweet-potato pie. "It certainly doesn't hurt," he said. "But we can't track it that close."