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Oprah still impacts personal spending

Candice Choi
Oprah still impacts personal spending
In this Sunday, Dec. 9, 2008 file photo, Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., with his wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey, take part in a campaign rally at Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. (Photo: AP /Mary Ann Chastain, File)

Author: AP /Harpo Productions, George BurnsIn this Sunday, Dec. 9, 2008 file photo, Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., with his wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey, take part in a campaign rally at Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.

NEW YORK — Oprah Winfrey’s impact on your finances won’t end with her show.

During its 25 years on the air, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” held enormous sway over how its audience chose to spend and save. Most notably, the show regularly counseled viewers on their household finances. But the program also influenced decisions in more indirect ways.

When Winfrey featured a charity on her show, for example, viewers reached for their wallets. On the spending front, her stamp of approval could turn a little-known product into an instant craze. Her power over book sales is legendary.

“Nobody else has that kind of influence,” says Susan Harrow, a media coach and author of a guide on how to land an appearance on the “Oprah” show. A mere mention could turn a small business owner into a millionaire overnight, Harrow notes.

That impact won’t stop now that the final episode has aired. Winfrey will continue connecting with audiences through her 5-month-old cable channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Although ratings have faltered, Winfrey plans to focus her energies on the fledgling network after her syndicated program wraps. O, The Oprah Magazine remains a top seller with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Here are four ways Winfrey and her show impacted finances — and will continue to do so:

1. Money Matters

The episodes that made the biggest headlines — think Tom Cruise jumping on a couch, or author James Frey squirming in the hot seat — aren’t what made Oprah fans so loyal.

Regular viewers tuned in for guidance on the major issues they struggle with day to day, says Suze Orman, the financial guru whose fame can be traced to the show.

“They are watching ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ not to be entertained, but to be transformed,” she says.

And money and health are the topics that resonate most with viewers  — which is why Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and Orman star in “Oprah’s All Stars” on OWN.

Orman’s own success speaks to Oprah’s influence on household finances. The show gave Orman a platform to talk frankly about money issues that clearly struck a chord with women.

Before her first appearance on the show, Orman’s book “The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom” sold about 300,000 copies. It sold another 3 million after the episode aired.

“To put it mildly, it put me on the stage,” Orman says.

The partnership between the women is set to continue. Orman will get her own prime-time show on OWN this fall.

2. Charitable Giving

Helping others was a recurring theme on the “Oprah” show. Winfrey’s public charity, Oprah’s Angel Network, evolved from an episode in 1997 where she called on viewers to use their lives to give back. The charity went on to raise in excess of $80 million.

The “Oprah” show also helped launch numerous projects.

Take the Pajama Program, a New York City charity that provides new pajamas and books to children in need. Before a taping in April 2007, members of the studio audience were asked to collect donations as a surprise for the group’s founder. The audience drummed up 33,000 pairs of pajamas.

“The website went crazy, we started getting all these emails with donations,” says Genevieve Piturro, the group’s founder. “It was like in Las Vegas when the sevens come up.”

The episode aired two more times, and Pajama Program is still thriving. The charity aims to give away 260,000 pajamas and books this year.

“She not only gave us a bump,” Piturro says, “but she gave us legs.”

3. Spending Decisions

When Winfrey crows over a product, her audience takes note. That’s obvious in the boost in sales businesses enjoy after receiving a favorable mention.

“In the best case scenario, it can put people on the map,” says Harrow, author of  “The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah.”

Spanx is one of the better known examples. The body-slimming undergarments became a household name after they were featured on “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list in 2000. The company, which operated out of the owner’s apartment at the time, sold more than 50,000 products in three months after the episode aired. Spanx even notes the seminal event in its corporate history on its website.

More recently, Winfrey last year counted a small pie shop in Cape Cod as among her “favorite things.” The Centerville Pie Company, which was founded in just 2009, now ships thousands of pies a month around the country.

Even if a product isn’t prominently featured on the show, Harrow notes businesses can parlay a mere mention into a valuable marketing for years. “To be able to say you were on ‘Oprah’ is the gold standard for retail,” she notes.

4. Book Sales

Since the debut of Oprah’s Book Club in 1996, Winfrey has become a reliable hitmaker in publishing.

The power of Winfrey selecting a particular title was so enormous that the industry studied the impact.

Nielsen BookScan said that Winfrey’s choice of Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” in 2008 topped the list of biggest sellers among her book club selections in the past decade, with around 3.4 million copies.

The selection of James Frey’s notorious “A Million Little Pieces” resulted with just under 2.7 million copies sold. Elie Wiesel’s classic Holocaust memoir “Night” sold about 2 million after being selected.

Over the years, there were 65 book club selections. Nielsen only collected data on special Winfrey book club editions starting in 2001. Those 27 titles alone accounted for more than 22 million books sold.

But it’s not just the sales bumps the publishing industry will miss. Last week, the president of Penguin Group USA Susan Petersen Kennedy, also noted that Winfrey helped spawn reading groups. And she noted that Winfrey simply “got people talking about books.”

Associated Press