January 21, 1998 in Nation/World

Whoever Said Talk Is Cheap? Oprah Winfrey’s Words Can Be A Huge Asset - Or Liability

Jim Kirk And Tim Jones Chicago Tribune
 

Oprah Winfrey has found herself deeply entrenched in a pretty elite club whose membership includes the likes of President Clinton and Alan Greenspan - a single utterance can send shock waves through U.S. commerce.

In this case, it’s the price of beef.

Winfrey and vegetarian activist Howard Lyman are on trial in Amarillo, Texas, charged with violating a state law holding people liable for falsely disparaging food products.

Amarillo cattle feeder Paul Engler and others are suing them over comments they made about beef safety on Winfrey’s April 16, 1996, show.

Lyman said feeding ground-up animal parts to cattle, a practice banned in the United States last summer, could spread mad cow disease to humans in the United States. To applause from the studio audience, Winfrey exclaimed: “It has just stopped me from eating another burger!”

After the broadcast, already slumping cattle prices fell to some of their lowest levels in a decade. The plaintiffs are seeking to recoup total losses of more than $12 million, plus other, unspecified damages.

Defense attorneys blame other factors for the collapse, such as oversupply and decreased demand.

A jury was selected Tuesday in a trial that opens today in which the weight of the talk show star’s words will be debated in a court of law.

But in the world of entertainment and marketing, there is no debate about Oprah Winfrey. The woman moves product.

“She’s very real about the way she approaches her audience,” said John Grace, executive director at New York-based Interbrand, which assigns dollar values to brands for Fortune 500 companies, information used for everything from product marketing decisions to locating potential acquisitions. “Her audience spends a half-hour each day with her, and she’s an active participant. I know couples who spend less time each day interacting with each other.”

Indeed, Winfrey is not your typical celebrity pitchman or endorser, marketing executives say. A $500 million-dollar industry with her own fiercely loyal audience, Winfrey commands a combination of celebrity status, credibility and instant results. When Oprah tells a visiting author that his book moved her to tears, it becomes a best seller. Hollywood marketing executives vie to get a star of a new movie on the Oprah Winfrey Show because they know that appearance will translate to a good weekend at the box office.

“I would imagine that her following is about depth rather than breadth,” said Christie Nordhielm, assistant professor of marketing for the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. “People buy things that Bill Cosby endorses because they are familiar with him. People buy things that Oprah is connected to for much deeper reasons. She has a much deeper connection with her fan base. It is not a very large number, but it’s enough, with very high overlap. For that reason, anything she endorses isn’t a flash in the pan.”

It also helps that Winfrey isn’t slapping her name on every product. She guards the Oprah brand religiously, and controls it by taking a personal or financial interest in just about anything she pushes on her show. For example, she is producing the movie version of the Toni Morrison novel “Beloved,” a book she has praised on the air.

Whether her investments in things she endorsers backfires someday, it’s working for her quite well with audiences today.

“The more enthusiastic she is about a book and her expression of enthusiasm, the better chance of a big sale,” said one executive at a New York publisher.

In regard to her alleged defamation of beef, Grace said that “time will tell what the responsibility quotient is of what she did. But she has a long way to go before (the Oprah) brand erodes.”

And her star power might only rise higher during her expected extended stay in the Texas Panhandle. From fawning television anchors to a public-relations-conscious mayor, Amarillo - after an embarrassing start - is trying to warm itself in the glow of Winfrey’s celebrity.

Many people in town were shocked by a Jan. 9 memo from the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce telling its staff there will not be “any red carpet rollouts, key to the city (and) flowers.” In addition, the memo said “no chamber employees are to be at her show if she has them in Amarillo.”

In response to a huge, negative reaction, chamber president Gary Molberg quickly backtracked and called the memo “a mistake,” and the community whipped itself into a media near-frenzy over the arrival of Oprah.

“I thought we were hurting ourselves at the beginning, with that memo,” said Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger, who slowly worked the crowd of reporters Tuesday waiting outside the Amarillo federal building, “but this is really a rare opportunity for us to show the world what a nice community this is.”

The TV star was greeted with cheers when she left the courthouse on a lunch break.


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