How Oprah Winfrey Made Me ‘Fail’

Almost exactly 10 years to the day of her final episode that aired just last week, I submitted the paper below to the professor of my ‘Ethos of Brand’ class. We were asked to choose a prominent brand identity on which to write a research paper. Fascinated with the notion of personal brands, I swiftly chose Oprah Winfrey as my subject. To my surprise and utter contempt, my (at the time) 70+ year old professor issued me a grade of a D on the paper, stating that “people cannot be considered brands”.

I have always been a bit ahead of my time, but I was absolutely devastated by his refusal to accept the merit of my paper. He even said that he would have given me an F if it had not been obvious within the paper that I had read the assigned books.

I had almost completely forgotten about this experience until watching Oprah’s final episode with some friends. Recalling that I might still have it in my email archives, I dug it up for the purpose of this blog.

My message to you is this: Don’t let anyone tell you that your ideas are wrong. Trust that you know what you are talking about, and never be afraid to be outspoken…even if it means being perceived as a ‘failure’.

Here is my ‘failing’ paper…..

Oprah Winfrey: Bringing Back Social Values

Kathleen O’Grady
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Paper submitted: May 15, 2001

The quest for success is that which drives the American psyche. No one person is guaranteed success and for this reason people tend to imitate those whom they perceive to be successful. This may explain the profound success of media icons like Martha Stewart, Emeril LaGasse, and Oprah Winfrey. Simultaneously, mainstream media, in particular advertising, exploit the demand for a false sense of affluence through the marketing of products that only give off the appearance of success (i.e.: SUV’s, name brand expensive clothes and jewelry). In his book The Joyless Economy, Tibor Scitovsky hints at the motivation behind this behavior:

“Status seeking, the wish to belong, the asserting and cementing of one’s membership in the group is a deep-seated and very natural drive whose origin and universality go beyond man and are explained by the most basic of drives, the drive to survive.” (115)

Perhaps no other figure accomplishes the latter as effectively and seemingly happy as Oprah Winfrey. Through the use of her rhetoric Oprah Winfrey surpasses the temporary fulfillment offered by objects and is bringing social values back into the mainstream culture by replacing the desire for false satisfaction with true emotional outlets for her viewers.

Oprah’s success is somewhat of a paradox. While her wealth is a result of the money-hungry, ratings-driven market economy, her product (her rhetoric) seems to function in spite of itself as a vehicle for human self-discovery. Viewers define themselves, not through material things, but through identifying with others. For example, an exorbitant amount of money changes hands in the advertisement and production of The Oprah Winfrey Show , but no money comes out of the viewer’s pocket. The show, as a result of its wide variety of subject matter, encompasses all of the criteria for human stimulation. Scitovsky states:

“The stimulation comes from the infinite variety, unpredictability, and challenge of human contact, especially when we take the trouble to provoke and stimulate the other person. After all, the matching of wits and skills is our main challenge, and other people’s information, knowledge, experience, behavior, accomplishment, response to situations, solving of problems, and speculation about unresolved problems are our main sources of novelty” (83).

Oprah’s television audience may not be physically involved in the events of the show, but they nonetheless participate in the emotion of the show as they empathize with the guests and make connections to matters in their own lives. The last ten minutes of each show is devoted to personal reflection and is fittingly called “Remembering Your Spirit”. Oprah’s image, of someone who can be trusted, has contributed to people sharing intimate stories during this segment of the show.

Her Image:

The mythology surrounding Oprah Winfrey is quite powerful. Oprah survived a traumatic childhood; she faced discrimination, and negative press and in turn acquired an image if immense power. Perhaps in suffering so many hardships she broadens the spectrum for those who relate to her personally. Her intrinsic qualities consistently surface as she shamelessly shares intimate stories of her life with her audience, in turn creating a dynamic of equality with her viewers and guests. Oprah’s satisfaction comes from knowing that after any given episode, millions of viewers realize that they are not the only people in their current circumstance.

Oprah’s self made success came from overcoming her sex, her class, her ethnicity, her past, not to mention the universal insecurities that everyone struggles with. If a viewer cannot relate to Oprah on the basis of the latter, they can relate to her guests. While other talks shows went the route of inviting extremely controversial guests in order to “break through the clutter” (Jhally, et. al), Oprah remained a class act. Her ratings continued to be the highest and she secured a respectful image. In reference to the audience she lost to other shows that relied solely on shock value, Scitovsky states:

“Different people have different notions of what is the most pleasantly stimulating behavior…after all, what they themselves find the most pleasing also varies, and varies greatly with temperament, education, cultural tradition, past experience, etc., and ones own taste as a consumer of stimulation is bound greatly to influence one’s choice of stimulus” (122).

The above quote proves that not all people can be satisfied by the same stimulus, but consumers who choose a more positive (Oprah vs. Jerry Springer) form of stimulus increase their chances of being truly satisfied; or at least the satisfaction will last longer.

On the topic of trash verse class Oprah herself had the following to say:
“What we’re really doing is trying to disassociate ourselves from the ‘trash pack.’ There’s a whole genre of television talk shows that I’m not proud to be a part of and don’t appreciate being lumped in with. So, I have made a real effort to do talk shows that are more responsible, shows that are going to be a benefit and not belittle people” (Lowe 150)

Oprah can even be considered to be a spiritual leader. She uses her show to teach people that you don’t have to be part of any specific organized religion—in order to live a morally sound life. She states: “I feel that my show is a ministry; we just don’t take up a collection. And I feel that it is a teaching tool, without preaching to people about it. That’s my intent” (Lowe 126). But in actuality, she does take up a collection through her ‘Angel Network’, a charity that she began in 1997. It encouraged viewers to give to the less fortunate and had the following results:

“In addition to the $3.5 in ‘pocket change’ and private donations that were raised through the ‘The World’s Largest Piggy Bank’, the Angel Network also built almost 200 homes across the country through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity” (H&S Media, Inc. 14).

In a touching gesture to show his respect for her charity, Steven Spielberg, presented Oprah with a ring engraved with a quote from his movie ‘Schindler’s List’, it said, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” (H&S Media, Inc. 14).

Her Product:

Oprah’s image has allowed her to extend her voice beyond her T.V. show to other genres such as made for T.V. movies (Oprah Winfrey Presents, ABC), periodicals (”O” Magazine), books (The Oprah Book Club), and the internet ( There is a positive stigma attached to just about everything associated with Oprah. The best example of this would be her book club. According to Oprah: An Unofficial Tribute, a collaboration of articles about Oprah, “Since starting Oprah’s Book Club in 1996, all 33 books selected have skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller lists. For authors, having a book picked by Oprah is akin with winning the lottery” (H&S Media, Inc., 10). No other celebrity has been able to have such an impact on the book industry.

Because of the extended interest in her book club Oprah realized she could expand into publishing her own magazine, which she did last year. In her First Anniversary Issue, May 2001, she reiterates the purpose of the magazine in a personal quote to her readers:

“As you read through the pages of this issue of ‘O’, I encourage you to again consider the life defining questions I posed a year ago in the very first issue: What is really important to you? Are you living your best life? What will it take for you to fulfill your potential? How much further can you grow? And are you using what you know to live, as you should? The greatest joy lies not in simply being but in becoming” (43).

Such questions contain no subliminal marketing messages; their only function is to help the reader examine one’s self in order to perpetuate positive changes in their life. In effect, accomplishing what all the SUV’s and tennis bracelets cannot.

Another outlet for Oprah’s fans is her web site. ‘’ is the culmination of all her rhetoric. The site provides links to her show, her magazine, her book club, her Angel Network (charity started by Oprah), etc. Visitors are encouraged to email questions and comments, some of which become future topics on her show and in her magazine.

Her Purpose:

Oprah strategically uses her respectful image and influential rhetoric (her product) to reinforce social values in society. She regards her work as satisfying solely because she sees positive results in people. She says, “…part of the reason why I am as successful as I have been, [is] because success wasn’t the goal. The process was. I wanted to do good work” Lowe 134). For most people in business happiness comes from the security they feel when they make money; for Oprah her happiness comes from her work; the money that comes as a result is secondary.

Oprah’s contribution to popular culture has yet to be completely recognized. She has created a society of people that exchange their insight rather than material goods. People who follow Oprah’s rhetoric are satisfied with no purchase necessary. Scitovsky states this point more scientifically:

“We can, if we want to, think of each person’s contribution to the other’s satisfactions as payment for the satisfaction he receives. It is obvious that no economic exchange, no formal guarantee of reciprocity, is needed to assure participation in such contact” (83).

No clearer is this seen than in her follow up episodes, in which previous viewers of a particular show are brought on the tell of how certain stories changed their lives. For example, just to name a few: battered women leaving their husbands, molested children breaking their silence, incompatible couples learning to communicate, etc. Her rhetoric feeds itself! It is as if Oprah gives free therapy to all that watch and listen. Not everybody can afford a therapist, but they can afford to turn on their television.

The Paradox:

“Conversation is an exchange of information and ideas; it is talk which is mutually stimulating. We enjoy pleasant conversation not only for the stimulus it provides, but also for the satisfaction we get out of knowing that our contribution stimulates others. No wonder it is a major source of human satisfaction” (236).

Oprah has taken the process of conversation and turned it into a multi-million dollar a year business. The most amazing thing is that, while billions of dollars worth of advertisements appear during her show, in her magazine, and on her web site, she has no need to advertise herself. Her name, which has become a powerful brand identity, is her best sales pitch.

Perhaps the paradox Oprah has created is literally signified by the name of her production company, Harpo. In her book Oprah Winfrey Speaks, Janet Lowe describes the double meaning of the name:

“It may be appropriate that Oprah named the company after herself, spelling her name backwards. Oprah represents the emotional, theoretical side of her personality. Harpo shows that Oprah has a flip side—that of a savvy business executive…she owns the show; she owns the production company; she owns the studio; and now she owns a major part of the distributor.” (60).

In a society where material goods have become the main way in which people tell themselves apart from the crowd, Oprah is striving to provide a more spiritual form of self-esteem. She states:

“From the beginning, my philosophy has been that people deserve to come and to leave [my show] with their dignity…a good talk show will stimulate thought, present new ideas, and maybe give you a sense of hope where there wasn’t any—a feeling of encouragement, enlightenment; inspire you” (Lowe 151).
Perhaps if people were more in touch with their personalities on the inside, they would not have to spend so much money to mask the outside.

If Oprah is the answer to the question of how to get social values back into the center of society, then it is ironic that she is riding the wave of market economy to get there. Her rhetorical strategies function both inside and outside the economy and continue to retain their strength in society.

Works Cited

1. Jhally, Sut. Et. Al. Social Communication in Advertising. New York: Routledge,
2. Lowe, Janet. Oprah Winfrey Speaks. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998
3. Mayer, Larry. “A Lifetime of Inspiration”. Oprah: An Unofficial Tribute. Chicago;
H&S Media, 2000.
4. Scitovsky, Tibor. The Joyless Economy: Revised Edition. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992.