Now that Oprah‘s show is drawing to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the many ways that she changed the face of daytime television, and people’s lives. When The Oprah Winfrey Show hit the airwaves 25 years ago, it followed the same formats as Phil Donahue and Sally Jessie Raphael, in that it portrayed sensationalist every-man stories about family gossip, medical wonders, and relationship blunders. Then in the mid-90s, Oprah switched gears and decided her show was going to help people’s self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence. Segments like “Remembering Your Spirit,” “Oprah’s Book Club,” “Live Your Best Life,” and “Favorite Things” popped up, cataloging different items people could purchase to enhance their self-worth. Treat yourself, was the idea behind it. Unfortunately, I find that by promoting self-help through consumerism, her quest to make Americans happier is a message diluted by crass methods.
“For her, transformation is about self-esteem and about buying stuff,” Susan Mackey-Kallis (a communications professor at Villanova University), told Business Week Magazine last week. Suggesting that the route to happiness and zen is through shopping and retail therapy strikes me as a band-aid solution to concrete-jungle living. Although Oprah did indeed promote more organic solutions to happiness, such as fitness, relationship discourse, and self exploration, each method was cleverly hyped with a brand attached to it.
It is important to note that Oprah was never paid for any brand she promoted on air, but her media-clout translated into strong, mutually-beneficial relationships with these brands, allowing her show to grow in permeation, while the brands lived off the dividends.
Susan Berfield from Business Week writes:
Winfrey regularly announced her “favorite things” in shows that were tantamount to infomercials, though far more effective. When DreamTime’s Foot Cozys, aromatherapy slippers, were featured on an episode in 2002, the company was selling 3,000 pairs a month. The following month, it sold 20,000. The slippers became DreamTime’s best-selling product that year. When Winfrey presented such goodies to her audience, it was the companies (from Williams-Sonoma to Apple (AAPL)) that donated them. The big shows—in which audiences received cars and trips—inspired the fervor of revival meetings. “Product placement is a fair way to describe her ‘favorite things,’” says Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “But she is the one who is brokering those deals for her audience. It’s product placement in a funny kind of way because the companies are giving the product away.” Her brand could sell everything from croissants to refrigerators. Chicago blogger Robyn Okrant bought everything Winfrey recommended in 2008, spending nearly $4,800.
The books that Oprah liked became international best sellers and, conversely, the beef industry suffered when Oprah made disparaging remarks about their links to mad-cow disease (resulting in a libel lawsuit). Whatever she said, went. And I can’t help but feel that by reinforcing our collective identities as mere “consumers” rather than human beings with issues and emotions and concerns beyond the realm of shopping, this was doing us a disservice. There are many organic, non-shopping-related methods to achieving happiness. But let’s not forget that Oprah wasn’t running a therapy class (despite the many tears she evoked from guests and audience alike). She was running a profit-based TV show.
Am I happy when I buy a new pair of shoes? Yes. Am I happy when I’m having a conversation with another person? Also yes. However, only one of these practices is sustainable and can actually lead to long-term positive changes in my state of well being. I’ll let you guess which one that is.
Oprah alone is not to blame for this form of happiness-through-consumerism message. We are fed this message daily from a plethora of sources. But when Oprah screamed “You get a car! You get a car! And you get a car! Everybody gets a caaaarrrrrrr!” this is almost in direct opposition to her “Remembering Your Spirit” segment which focused on spirit quests and enlightenment (the segment was eventually killed).
India.Arie once sang “my worth is not determined by the price of my clothes,” and George Michael sang, “Sometimes the clothes do not make the man.” What happened to these popular veins of thought?
I think the route to happiness lies in transformation, sacrifice, and the bonds we form with one another. My self-esteem isn’t tied in with how many products line the cupboards and closets of my home. Can the same be said for Oprah’s millions of viewers?
What do you think about Oprah’s “Favorite Things” series? Do you think “retail therapy” can provide a much needed boost in happiness? Sound off in the comments section below.