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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Oprah's marketing flair

Envy may be one of the seven deadly sins, but critics of Oprah Winfrey have elevated it to the height of mean-spiritedness.

On the show's 19th season opener Sept. 13, the popular talk host had a surprise for her audience of 276 pre-screened fans. Each would receive a new car, she said, a Pontiac G6 that, with all the options, lists for about $28,000.

Initially, the gimmick was reported as a "giveaway" by Ms. Winfrey, but she didn't have to part with a dime to get the highest ratings her show has seen since 1996. The marketers at Pontiac, sniffing a bonanza of positive press, gladly offered $7.7 million worth of fancy cars.

Oprah facilitated the deal by providing an audience of mostly deserving recipients. Most who attended the show that day were selected because a friend or family member had written to Ms. Winfrey about their need for a car. In return for its generosity, General Motors got repeated mentions on an hour-long program seen in 8 million homes. For her part, Oprah got both the good and bad that comes with magnanimous gestures.

Soon enough, talk shows around the country were abuzz with jealous sniping.

Some envious observers in the car giveaway have gleefully pointed to the estimated $7,000 income tax that recipients will have to pay. The tax will be onerous for some, but those who got one said it's still a bargain to get a new car for so little.

Just about everyone involved turned out a winner - Oprah Winfrey with her ratings, GM with its promotion, and, of course, the studio audience with their 276 Pontiacs. The only ones embittered were the cranks who believe that no good deed, even this one, should go unpunished.

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