When it comes to decisions related to politics, shopping and more, there are a multitude of factors that go into any individual's conscious and subconscious thinking. Some of these may be relatively straightforward—an individual who is registered as a Democrat is more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate, for example. In other cases, though, the links can be harder to find.
Nonetheless, numerous studies have shown that individuals are dramatically impacted by the information around them, whether they recognize it or not. The advertisements we see, the ways that products and companies are branded, and even the news sources we view can all have subtle but impactful effects on our decisions. Put broadly, this basket of factors is sometimes referred to as the Oprah Effect, named for the popular television host Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey has famously been able to catapult select consumer goods to the stratosphere of sales simply by recommending them or even mentioning them on her programs.
Now, the Oprah Effect also refers to our collective tendency to make political decisions based on the news programs that we watch, among other things.
The Oprah Effect Is Real
A 2006 study by Matthew A. Baum and Angela S. Jamison entitled "The Oprah Effect: How Soft News Helps Inattentive Citizens Vote Consistently," classified the Oprah Effect with regard to news viewing. Soft news refers to news designed to be primarily entertaining or for personal use, as opposed to news centering around breaking events. Baum and Jamison determined that the Oprah Effect was a real phenomenon by isolating variables associated with voting patterns in a study group. The results of the study indicated that an increased consumption of soft news prompted low-information voters (those without a strong awareness of politics) to vote more consistently but had little effect on more highly aware voters. On the other hand, exposure to hard news tended to increase the voting consistency of those individuals who were more politically aware but had little effect on the low-information voters.
Measuring the Oprah Effect
The implications of the Oprah Effect study are enormous, particularly at a time when the role of the media in daily political life is under intense scrutiny. Still, it can be extremely difficult to measure the phenomenon. It is somewhat easier to trace the Oprah Effect as it relates to the influence a particular famous individual (like Oprah Winfrey) can have on specific product sales. By comparing sales figures from before the individual recommended the product to those during the spike following the recommendation, one can assess some element of the impact that figure had. Of course, there are also many other factors at play in these situations, too; the demographics of the individual's audience as compared with the targeted audience for the product itself is just one factor to keep in mind when calculating the Oprah Effect.