Expect Oprah Winfrey’s star to shine brightly on the Volkswagen Routan minivan, which the infotainment icon is offering as a prize on her TV show. But that is no guarantee VW will see a rise in Routan sales.

“There are no negative connotations around Oprah with most people, and so (she) seems like a very good choice if you’re going to use a celebrity endorsement,” says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision Inc., a California-based automotive consultancy.

Media watchers well remember a 2004 segment of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” when the star told her studio audience, all 276 members, that each would receive a new ’05 Pontiac G6 sedan.

“The crowd went berserk,” the star recalls on her website. “Just for the occasion, we brought in (paramedics) who were standing by in case someone's heart started palpitating a little bit too quickly. Even now when I think of the shrills of pure joy I heard on the show that day, my own heart rate rises all over again.”

Volkswagen and Harpo Productions, which oversees Winfrey’s show, decline comment on this year’s giveaway plans. But the promotion’s official rules indicate two Routans are up for grabs.

That’s good news to Perry Brace, part-owner of Vallejo Volkswagen in Vallejo, CA. “We haven’t got a lot of action on (the Routan),” he says.

Routan sales gained in June, totaling 2,099, compared with prior-month’s 1,390, according to Ward’s data. But June’s performance fell short of April’s 2,606 deliveries, the model’s best month to date.

Brace estimates his dealership sold three or four of the minivans in the last 60 days. “They’re starting to warm up a little bit, but they just haven’t got hot yet,” he says, adding consumer awareness remains too low.

However, if General Motors Corp.’s G6 experience is any indication, Oprah will change all that. Within hours of her landmark $7 million giveaway, the model rose to top search-item status on Yahoo and Google, GM says.

Within two weeks, Pontiac G6 awareness reached 87% among adults, while also achieving a 17% click-through rate, a Google record for the time. In addition, unique visitors to Pontiac’s website rose to six times the normal rate, the auto maker says.

The reason? If the entertainment industry were the New York Stock Exchange, Oprah would be a blue-chip investment, says Kathy Findling, president of Creative Entertainment Services in Burbank, CA, a company that negotiates product placements in feature films and television shows. “She’s got huge ratings,” Findling says of Oprah.

The most recent ratings from Nielsen Media Research show Oprah edged out archrival “Judge Judy” for fourth place among 128 syndicated programs. The reality courtroom show previously finished ahead of Oprah, but both are well back of the top-rated show in the syndicated realm – “Wheel of Fortune.”

The Routan promotion, which ends Aug. 29, is not the first time Oprah has shilled for a minivan. She also endorsed the Chevrolet Venture, which was replaced by the since-discontinued Chevrolet Uplander in ’05.

Ironically, the G6 is headed for the history books. Production ends in September, a casualty of bankrupt GM’s decision to kill the storied Pontiac brand.

Routan production, stalled since January because of excess inventory and Chrysler LLC’s bankruptcy, is scheduled to resume in August, sources tell Ward’s. Chrysler Group LLC, the former company’s successor, assembles the Routan at its minivan plant in Windsor, ON, Canada.

The Routan shares its underpinnings with the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan.

And if Oprah has a checkered past with passenger vehicles, the same can be said of the Routan’s ties with celebrities. A previous VW Routan campaign featuring celebrity Brooke Shields was deemed a failure because viewers recalled its comedic premise but not the vehicle.

TV spots showed the actress admonishing expectant couples for allegedly conceiving children only to justify the purchase of a German-engineered minivan. Strategic Vision’s Edwards says he has seen data that indicated “even Volkswagen Eurovan owners did not remember that (the Brooke Shields commercial) was for a Volkswagen minivan.”

Nevertheless, Edwards defends TV celebrity endorsements as a marketing tool, despite the growing emphasis on Internet advertising. Television generates “initial interest” that inspires consumers to further investigate products using online resources.

“If people really think Oprah loves the Routan, that certainly can have an effect,” Edwards says, adding product placement has more potential impact than paid commercials because digital video recorders enable TV viewers to skip advertisements.

“If Oprah’s talking about (the Routan) on her show, odds are people are probably not going to fast-forward through it.”

emayne@wardsauto.com