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Oprah Is the Original Celebrity Influencer

Before the Kardashians and Instagram, one woman figured out how to get people to shop en masse.

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In November of 1996, nearly a million new copies of the book Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, suddenly appeared on bookstore shelves all across America.

At the time, Morrison was already an acclaimed novelist. She had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998 and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, and chaired the humanities department at Princeton. Song of Solomon had also been published 19 years earlier. So why were stores suddenly scrambling to restock the title? Two words, or better yet, one name: Oprah Winfrey.

The talk show host had just launched her popular book club as an ongoing segment on her nationally syndicated program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and per USA Today, Morrison earned more sales from Oprah’s list than from winning the Nobel Prize.

Over the 15 years Oprah’s book club ran (it ended when The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air in 2011), she helped sell 55 million books, according to the estimates of a Fordham University marketing professor. As the New York Times wrote in 1997, publishing houses were “delighted by the sales she stimulates, awed by the control she exercises, and obsessed by how to find ways to whisper in her ear.”

When it comes to impact, Oprah’s certainly didn’t stop at books. After officially endorsing Barack Obama for president in 2007, for example, academics credited her with 1 million of his votes in 2008’s Democratic primary election. She’s made the list of Gallup’s “Most Admired Woman” every year since 1988, and her Hearst-owned magazine, O, has 2.4 million subscribers, a whopping 98 percent of whom are paying subscribers.

In some ways, the business mogul’s impact can best be understood in dollar signs: Oprah has been masterful at getting people to buy things. Before style blogs, affiliate links, or the Kardashians, there was Oprah. For all intents and purposes, she is the original celebrity influencer.

These days, the title of “influencer” — someone with the ability to sway purchasing decisions based on the power and impact they have on an audience — has become ubiquitous. The influencer market (that is, the industry linking brands with influencers) is worth about $2 billion, according to AdWeek, and is expected to hit $10 billion by 2020. Basically anyone with an audience can claim to be one, and thanks to social media, there are plenty: Former reality TV stars, D-list celebrities, and fashion and beauty bloggers have been able to make a career by capitalizing on their followings and pushing audiences to buy stuff.

Oprah with Al Gore on her talk show in 2000
Photo: Luke Frazza / Getty Images

But before Instagram or reality TV shows on Bravo, a 64-year-old woman of color was the original mastermind of galvanizing audiences across the country to purchase items and support causes she endorsed. While it’s impossible to put an exact dollar figure to Oprah’s impact, she has been responsible for the shopping choices of millions of Americans over the span of four decades, whether it’s the books you bought because of the little icon on the cover carrying her endorsement or the Christmas presents you chose because she mentioned it on her show. Her advocacy for all things shopping might have started with her TV show, which boasted 48 million viewers, but it’s since extended to other entities like her television network, OWN; her magazine; and its website.

“When celebrity influencers today talk about skincare or their favorite shoes, it’s hard not to think of Oprah because she really paved the way for a lot of these people,” says Howard Bragman, chairman and founder of LaBrea Media, who’s known Oprah since her local TV days. “It’s been pretty extraordinary to watch her power and influence amass.”

Today, social media is arguably the best place for influencers to exercise their power. On Instagram, Oprah has about a fraction of followers as other of-the-moment influencers, with 13.5 million followers, compared to Kim Kardashian’s 108 million, Kendall Jenner’s 87 million, or Gigi Hadid’s 38 million. According to visual intelligence company Dash Hudson, Oprah’s engagement level, through likes and comments, is actually higher than Kim Kardashian’s, even though Oprah’s die-hards aren’t necessarily social media natives. O Magazine also sees more engagement on Instagram than Kardashian businesses like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics.

“Oprah is arguably one of the most influential public figures of all time, and what makes her so powerful is that her influence extends far beyond her commercial endorsements,” says Hélène Heath, Dash Hudson’s senior editor. “The big stars who are venerated by younger women today, like the Kardashian-Jenners and the Hadids of the world, are admired for their aspirational lifestyle, their looks, and their fashion and beauty choices, all of which are perfectly packaged for consumption on the ‘Gram. Meanwhile, Oprah’s status is all-encompassing.”

“If the KarJenners and Hadids are inspiring girls today with things of superficial importance, Oprah is a mythical figure of iconic sagacity who has a unique ability to make people feel introspective,” Heath goes on. “The big difference is that when Oprah speaks, people stop to listen. People from all generations, whether they understand why or not, know that whatever Oprah says is invaluable.”

Courtney Worthman, a partner at entertainment marketing agency Cogent World, says that the most successful influencers in the market today are those who have an emotional connection to their audiences — something Oprah was first to master as an approach. (The Wall Street Journal even coined the term “Oprahfication,” which means “public confession as a form of therapy.”) On her television show, says Worthman, “Oprah became a part of her audience. She cried alongside her guests, shared personal stories, and spoke with audiences, not at them. This is how people learned to believe and trust her.”

While Oprah’s book club granted her superhuman powers (Time credited her with the “power to raise authors from the dead”), her most influential hand in America’s shopping habits is tied to her Favorite Things list. The concept was an annual segment on her television show, and usually aired around Thanksgiving. It included products as unremarkable as Pillsbury frozen biscuits and a premier edition of Scrabble, and as highbrow as a Burberry trench coat or a Volkswagen Beetle. Tickets to sit in the audience of the Favorite Things episode were highly covetable, since the show ended up being a giveaway circus (cue up the wildly popular “You get a car! And you get a car!” bit). Getting placement on the list, too, was desirable to brands, as anything chosen saw explosive growth — a phenomenon unto itself referred to with names like “The Oprah Effect” or “The O Factor.” As USA Today put it, Oprah’s favorite things “very shortly become America’s favorite things after she spotlights them.”

Oprah with Barack and Michelle Obama at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in 2007.
Photo: Darren McCollester / Getty Images

Oprah’s Favorite Things had a striking impact on small businesses. In 2002, the Favorite Things segment featured aromatherapy slippers from the brand DreamTime, and sales of the product that year jumped from 3,000 pairs of slippers a month to 20,000, Bloomberg reported. In 2003, the list featured the Key lime bundt cake of local Florida bakery We Take the Cake, and the business sold 10,000 cakes during the holiday season, with annual sales nearly doubling, according to CNN. In 2005, the list featured Garrett Popcorn, from the Chicago shop, and its CFO said a year later that the company went from making popcorn eight hours a day to 24 hours a day.

Oprah’s Favorite Things list didn’t just fuel mom-and-pop shops. By the time she featured a pair of Ugg Classic Short boots on her list in 2003, the boots had plenty of celebrity cachet, thanks to the likes of Kate Moss and Beyoncé. But the Oprah Effect helped the brand obtain its immortal cult following (and Ugg landed on Oprah’s list four more times). In 2010, Oprah put Coach’s Sophia Satchel on her Favorite Things list, and accessory bloggers wrote that it was “the hottest” handbag of the season. According to the New York Times Magazine, after the skincare company Philosophy had its Gingerbread Man Hot Salt Scrub featured on Oprah’s list, “for two months straight, Philosophy made salt scrub, working weekends and double shifts and putting its other core skin-care items on backorder.”

Oprah’s influence on shopping wasn’t just about what she told audiences to buy, but also what she told them not to. During the 1996 outbreak of mad cow disease, for example, Oprah had a cattle rancher-turned-animal rights activist on the show to talk about the beef industry. After proclaiming that his revelations had “stopped me cold from eating another hamburger!” the sale of beef across the country plunged for almost two weeks, causing furious Texas ranchers to file a $10.3 million defamation lawsuit (which they lost).

And like any celebrity influencer, Oprah’s power doesn’t just lie in the products she endorses, but in the personalities she’s made happen. The mega-celebrity has been credited with kickstarting the careers of several now-famous TV personalities, including Mehmet “Dr. Oz” Oz, Phil “Dr. Phil” McGraw, Rachael Ray, and Nate Berkus, all of whom made it big after appearing on her show. Even the show’s reruns give bumps: After a 2003 episode where Dolly Parton starred as a guest aired again in 2008, sales of her CDs reportedly soared 70 percent.

Most celebrity influencers are involved with some sort of product shilling (Teatox, anyone?), and over the years, there’s been speculation about payment behind the items Oprah endorses and the guests she’s brought onto her show. In 2008, publicists told AdAge that in order for products to land on the show, companies were better off starting out as sponsors first —like Unilever’s Dove, which spent plenty of money on ads for the show and was also a part of three major segments. (Harpo Productions, Oprah’s company, denied any “direct ad-for-publicity deal.”)

Oprah has also faced plenty of criticism for the cost of the products she’s promoted over the years, since many hardly fell within the budget of the average American (one year, Jezebel ranked the “most oblivious, tone-deaf” items on Oprah’s Favorite Things list, grading them on a scale from one to five Gwyneth Paltrows, “a pioneer in out-of-touch rich lady recommendations”). In 2007, Eric Deggans, blogging for the Huffington Post, took offense to Oprah criticizing inner-city school kids in Newsweek for saying that they needed “an iPod or some sneakers.”

“So much in our culture tells young people they should lust after the latest product by Apple, Verizon, Jimmy Choo or Martha Stewart. And Oprah, whose fetishizing of celebrity and high-end consumer goods is legend, has fed that jones as much as anyone in modern media,” Deggans wrote. “Can we really look at our most underprivileged young people and fault them for learning the lessons of materialism and celebrity obsession that our media culture feeds them every day? Oprah, who manipulates her image deftly as any celebrity in modern times, knows this. So why is she criticizing America’s youth for serving a beast she helped create?”

Oprah fans in Melbourne, Australia during the TV star’s visit in 2010.
Photo: Robert Cianflone / Getty Images

In 2008, a Salon lifestyle editor told the New York Times that Oprah promoting shopping while simultaneously preaching spiritualism was “a frustration we all feel with Oprah over the years. She is a representative for the average woman. At the same time she is one of the richest people in the world. I think there was a time when Oprah really lived by her advice, and I think that time was 1988.”

In the face of the criticism, though, there’s still a cult following behind Oprah, where still to this day, as Bragman puts it, “about ten percent of this country will buy anything Oprah tells them to.”

Why do so many put their faith in Oprah when it comes to their shopping choices? Pamela Ribon, an LA-based television and film writer and Oprah superfan, sees Oprah as a maternal figure — someone who’s developed unprecedented trust.

“Oprah gets excited about things the way friends get excited about things for each other,” says Ribon. “She isn’t just talking about things that are cool. There is usually an emotional reason behind the product, something that will make you have a better day because that’s what she’s always been about. When Oprah has something to share, she’s not sharing it because she’s looking for corporate branding, or a sponsor. She’s talking about it because it’s something she believes in.”

Over at finance site The Motley Fool, analysts who’ve studied Oprah’s involvement in bolstering businesses echo this sentiment.

“People really trust what she says. In fact, financial institutions see her as extremely credible,” says Asit Sharma, a consumer goods and industrials specialist for the site. “Oprah has a track record of building successful businesses. She has a platform that crosses several types of media and a huge following of people who really believe her and see her as credible in almost any endeavor she undertakes. And it really is hard to think of someone who has so much influence on this level of trust and credibility.”

It’s been almost seven years since The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air, and Oprah’s network hasn’t quite gathered the same dedicated audience her TV show once did. While she might have been the original celebrity influencer, Kitty Kelley, who wrote the 2010 biography Oprah: A Biography, is skeptical Oprah still has the same impact these days.

“I don’t think Oprah has the same reach without her talk show because her platform then was able to better saturate the country,” says Kelley. Television, and media as a whole, she adds, is way more fragmented, and so it’s harder today to affect audiences in the same way.

Bragman, of LaBrea Media, on the other hand, believes that Oprah’s limited appearances makes her an even more powerful influencer today.

Photo: Earl Gibson III / Getty Images
Photo: Rabbani and Solimene Photography / Getty Images

“Oprah’s been smart to not over-use her power, so when she shows up somewhere, it’s an event,” he says. “There’s a certain mystique to her since she’s not on TV every day. Now, when she does have an appearance, it lives on through social media, and continues to have another life. She isn’t trying to so-called ‘break the internet’ or go viral. She’s playing the long game.”

Today, the influencer market largely targets millennials and Gen Z — audiences tethered to their phones. Jessica Morgan, one of the writers behind the popular celebrity style site Go Fug Yourself, says Oprah still manages to hold her footing as a first-rate influencer because a majority of her audience is made up of a powerful and often ignored demographic: women in their forties.

“Speaking as someone who is 42, we’ve come to a moment where no one cares about my money, and I think Oprah for sure speaks to those women,” says Morgan. “And these women have a lot of money, especially women my age who don’t have kids.”

To be an influencer today by definition means to push trends to the masses. As someone who wrote the book on influencing, though, Oprah is now a chapter beyond it. Her impact and authority on society is eternal, ageless — and can even reach multiple generations. At the 2018 Golden Globes, while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, Oprah delivered a rousing speech that did, in fact, go viral. Following the speech, there was a huge movement calling for Oprah to run for president — a movement, which Bragman points out “was largely millennial-drive, and amassed inspiration to young people.” (“Fuck 2020, Oprah 2018,” read one tweet.)

“She can have influence on all generations because she’s put herself forward as a spiritual successor,” says Kelley. “She does have a strong influence on purchasing power, but her influence is also about speaking her mind,” adds Ribon. “She continues to be thoughtful and mindful, and that’s why she is inspiring future generations.”

Oprah at the 2018 Golden Globes.
Photo: NBCUniversal / Getty Images

That’s not to say Oprah doesn’t have an impact on pop culture today; on the contrary, she’s more revered than ever, especially by many young women who see her as the ultimate icon. In Comedy Central’s Broad City, which has been described as one of the most realistic depictions of millennial women today on television, Abbi Jacobson has a giant poster of Oprah above her bed, as well as a tattoo of Oprah on her tramp stamp area. Oprah is the icon of choice for 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, whose “religion” involves “doing whatever Oprah tells me to do,” and even hallucinates that she sits next to the television mogul on a flight. It’s not surprising that Oprah’s now front and center of #TimesUp, the new movement to fight sexual harassment, or taking on Trump voters on 60 Minutes by working as a special contributor for the CBS show.

“Many of our pop culture ‘icons’ enjoy only fleeting attention,” author Bob Batchelor wrote in his book Cult Pop Culture. “Once their original media run is over, they slip from the forefront of public awareness to become the special concerns of devoted fans. Oprah, however, has been actively evolving within pop culture for more than 20 years. Unlike many of the phenomena we might classify as cult, Oprah has come to depend less on us than we on her.”

And of course, Oprah is still affecting American shopping choices today. Her Favorite Things list still lives on through the pages of her magazine’s December issue. And like any shrewd influencer, Oprah has been keeping up with where the shoppers are headed: Since 2015, she’s been debuting a digital version of her Favorite Things list on Amazon (because what other e-commerce player would she team up with?). Morgan, from Go Fug Yourself, notes that when she wrote about the Amazon version of Oprah’s Favorite Things, “it was by far the most response we’d ever had to a shopping post. Our readers bought so much of the stuff, proving that we still very much enjoy buying what Oprah tells us to.”

Oprah’s influence also still has the magic touch when it comes to brands. In 2015, after Oprah invested in a then-struggling Weight Watchers, the diet company’s stock jumped 105 percent. Weight Watchers recently shared that since Oprah became involved, membership has increased from 2.5 million to 3.4 million, and Motley Fool compares Weight Watchers’ help from Oprah to that of Michael Jordan and Nike.

And if hype shopping, weight loss, or a presidential bid — one that got President Trump talking — isn’t enough to signify her ongoing success as Queen Influencer, perhaps a box office hit will. On the heels of recent acting and producing gigs like HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and OWN’s Queen Sugar and Greenleaf, Oprah is starring in Disney’s adaptation of the 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time, which debuts this week. Alongside Hollywood sweetheart Reese Witherspoon and TV favorite Mindy Kaling, the movie is sure to grab the attention of the kids’ demographic it was written for. Parents, too, are sure to be excited to be taking their kids to see a movie that stars the same TV show host they watched for decades.

And even if A Wrinkle in Time won’t win the critics, we can be sure that with Oprah on its side, it will definitely earn lots and lots of money.

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