Could the 'Oprah Effect' Hurt Oprah?

What if Obama's Elected and Turns Out to Be a Dud?

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Jonathon Feit Jonathon Feit
Last week, my Citizen Culture's EQUALITY MEDIA Newsletter ran an article about Oprah's endorsement of Barack Obama, and whether (or how) that sheds light on her credibility. I received more impassioned responses to that article than any before.

But searching for an angle that connected the story, beyond politics, to diversity in media, marketing and advertising, I kept coming up short. Ironically, my fellow contributor, Carol Watson, connected the dots in a response to the newsletter.

Carol wrote in an email: "[Oprah] speaks for people seeking truth and understanding . . . she will break through the clutter and connect with people that don't want to believe talking heads or others that have something to gain. . . . Oprah is better than the Good Housekeeping seal of approval!"

I was speechless (and for those who know me, that's quite an accomplishment).

It's true that Oprah Winfrey's kudos to a book, a product -- even an expert -- borders on messianic. Just ask Dr. Phil, who has her to thank for his career. Indeed, Oprah is seen by many as a friend -- not a shill -- which may explain why she is so often quoted as "Oprah" and not as "Winfrey."

But the Good Housekeeping seal of approval promises a replacement or refund on a defective product. It simply has no parity in politics. (If it did, do you think President Bush would still be in office, armed with some of the lowest ratings numbers in history?)

I got to wondering about spokespeople: Carol Watson, in her own article on the subject two weeks ago, talked about building meaningful relationships with consumers, demonstrating an understanding of their values and not just positioning someone who physically resembles them or hails from the same origin -- or, in Carol's specific case, using a celebrity as window-dressing for a campaign.

The rub of it is, for some reason, we sober-minded Americans seem oddly, phenomenally inclined to heed the words of a spokesperson.

Every once in a while, of course, spokespeople actually deserve their credibility. I still remember being awestruck as a child watching Bob Vila build houses on TV. His stumping for Sears's Craftsman brand seems a fine, believable pairing.

At the same time, some of the world's most famous products -- say, anything by Apple -- feature no "experts" at all? Humor spots are a preferred choice, or a simple close-up on the gorgeous face of the iPhone. The product sells itself through intrigue, design need, and usability, rather than someone's word.

The fact is, even experts get things wrong: CNBC's raving Jim Cramer had a spate of bad luck on "Mad Money," even though he's widely reputed as having an encyclopedic knowledge of all things financial and listed. Some people never forgave him -- he no longer seemed so insightful, despite a pedigree as a wildly successful Goldman Sachs alum.

Oprah had a similar brush with promotional death at the hands of James Frey. How could this woman have been so wrong, people wondered.

What if she's wrong now, too? Will Oprah survive if Obama does attain the presidency, and for whatever reason, turns out to be an impotent or incompetent leader? (That never happens...right?) People see her as infallible (I couldn't believe it), so she must have done her homework but something went wrong.

But what if that isn't the reaction she receives? We're transfixed by the wonderment of a brilliant, powerful, strong, wealthy, popular black woman speaking to the masses with a common voice never before heard in this country. She deserves it. But who will suffer if her weighty stamp of approval turns out not to be worth the paper it's printed on?
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