Oprah has left the building—at least the one where The Oprah Winfrey Show was taped. And we’re all aware she’s moved on to bigger (and knowing Oprah probably mo’ better) things. As a matter of fact I just hung up from speaking with my mom who is already quoting psychologists from Oprah’s cable network OWN. So chances are Lady O will continue to have an ongoing impact on our lives.
At Nielsen, the world’s largest marketing research company we measure what consumers watch and buy globally. And over the years we’ve followed Oprah a number of ways: from our ratings service which measured her syndicated daytime show (watched by approximately 7.4 million people daily, or 26 percent of all American households during the first two weeks of May this year) to our Nielsen Bookscan service which has tracked the success of “Oprah’s Book Club” picks.
As a cultural and media icon, the woman had a powerful influence on some of America’s buying habits. CNN even produced a special about this phenomenon and the impact it had on driving success for a company or product. It’s known as The Oprah Effect. Take Chicago-based Garrett Popcorn (which I wish had a western suburb outlet because trekking into the city whenever I have out-of-town guests who have to have it, gets old real fast) and I blame it on Oprah. According to CNN sales jumped by 100 percent after a December 2002 “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show. And, consider that Atlanta-based Spanx (the fashionable body shapers that make those of us over 25 look like we still have a 25 year old’s body…er, kinda…) was almost unheard of until the founder appeared on Oprah and netted the company a subsequent $350 million in retail sales. Any product that was good enough for Oprah was good enough for the rest of us (which explains why I have a stunningly beautiful pink and brown stripped chair in my guest room that doesn’t match anything in there, but I saw it in “O” Magazine and had to have it). Oprah has style and over the years it rubbed off on the rest of us.
But of all the things I love most about Oprah it was her ability to make reading “cool” again. I’m an avid reader, and in two rooms of my home I have floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves that are filled to the rafters with books to prove it. Because of Oprah suddenly I had girlfriends who hadn’t picked up books since our freshman English Lit class calling me saying, “Giirrrl, did you read Oprah’s book of the month? Whew! It. Was. Deep. Honey!” And although I didn’t personally read many of her selections (the ones I tried were actually a little on the depressing side and I don’t like books that make me weep through more than one chapter) Nielsen’s Bookscan numbers don’t lie—I was clearly in the minority. In the last decade, “Oprah’s Book Club” choices—which ranged from older classics to lesser known works to Pulitzer Prize-winners—translated into more than 22 million copies sold. That’s a lot of readers.
For example, Oprah Pick #54 (Sept. 22, 2005): “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey (which ultimately turned out to be a fraud), made Frey a household name and sold a stunning 2.7 million copies in Oprah trade paperback; compared to the hardcover which sold 149,500. Another previously unknown work, Oprah Pick #63 (Sept. 17, 2009): “Say You’re One of Them” by Uwem Akpan, enjoyed a whopping 853 percent increase in sales after his appearance.
Not only did Lady O encourage America to read, she gave her audience choices in how they could read. I’m old school—I like my books with pages that I can turn down at the corners, cuddle up with on a rainy day, and place in alphabetical order on one of my bookshelves when I’ve finished. Oprah raved about the new electronic reading (eReaders) devices like the Kindle. And according to Nielsen 61 percent of eReader owners opt to snuggle up in bed with this modern convenience, rather than a conventional book.
Oprah epitomizes what I write about (OK, sometimes I can be a little preachy) regularly in this column: using our consumer power for good. If we could sprinkle a little of her fairy empowerment dust throughout the land so that everyone understood the power of choices, there’d be no stopping the economic impact we could all have on the world.
(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is the senior vice president of Public Affairs and Government Relations for Nielsen. For more information and studies go to www.nielsenwire.com.)