Harpo Productions

Tim Bennett, president; Ellen Rakieten, executive producer; Harriet Seitler, creative services and program development; Lisa Halliday, director of communications

Oprah Winfrey initially turned down a proposal by General Motors’ Pontiac division to showcase its new G6 sedan as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things.”

Yet there she was on the premiere of her 19th season, handing out keys to 276 fully loaded Pontiacs to an audience composed of fans who desperately needed a new set of wheels, a stunt described later by TheWashington Post as “the product placement to end all product placements.”

A change of heart? Not really.

“She didn’t depart from her instincts,” explains Tim Bennett, president of Harpo Productions, who, along with three other top Oprah executives, is getting a Brand Builders Award because of the novel promotion. The car was not one of Winfrey’s favorite things, and she didn’t want to pretend it was. Coming up with the idea of giving the cars to viewers who badly needed a new auto made the giveaway something more; it was a piece of altruism that promoted Pontiac’s brand—and Winfrey’s, too. “The creativity of [the Harpo] team found a way to get it done,” Bennett says.

Pontiac got a rapturous introduction for its G6: Winfrey mentioned the model name 15 times during the program.

Ratings for the season premiere were the highest since the first show of the 1996 season, earning a national 10.1 rating, a 31% increase over the season-to-date Nielsen average of 7.7. Meanwhile, according to comScore Networks, which tracks Web-site traffic, visits to Oprah’s Web site jumped 800% the day after, with 600,000 logged on.

Pontiac spent $7.8 million on the vehicles and used the program as the opening shot in a $50 million ad campaign. Pontiac’s Web site traffic jumped 600% following the Oprah show, and dealerships were crowded.

Led by Ellen Rakieten, the Harpo team took months to put the segment together. A marketing scheme from Harriet Seitler and Lisa Halliday ensured massive coverage. Three weeks preceding the season premiere, Harpo began advising the press that a “major announcement” was in the offing but gave no hints. All guests and journalists were required to abide by an embargo to prevent the news from leaking before the show aired the following Monday. Remarkably, everybody complied. The day after the show, stories about Winfrey and the free Pontiacs were inescapable—not just in the U.S but in all 112 countries where the show airs.