Charities may be waking up to the fact that, far from aiding their causes, celebrity advocacy is actually damaging them.
A celebrity-driven approach to charity means that ‘genuinely expert voices are crowded out of the debate’.
It says something about how deeply we have tumbled down the rabbit hole of celebrity advocacy that the most reasonable statement I can remember on the matter has just been made by Pamela Anderson. “Sometimes I wonder if I am making it worse, or making it better,” the Baywatch legend mused at a rainforest charity reception at the House of Lords last week. “Am I legitimising these causes? Or the opposite? Who knows?”
It’s an excellent question, and a tribute to Pammy that she should possess the self-deprecating candour to ask it so publicly, when most stars appear to regard their immense value as axiomatic. The short answer to “who knows?” is “no one, really” – but we shall come to some intriguing new scientific research on the matter shortly. With the exception of celebrity campaigns apparently conceived as some kind of satirical dare – BBC3 sending Lindsay Lohan to India to discourse on human trafficking, for instance – it has become one of the orthodoxies of the age that entertainer advocacy is a good and effective thing.
And so to a new, large-scale surveycarried out by the UK Public Opinion Monitor, an initiative of the Institute of Development Studies, which in this case examined public responses to celebrity advocacy. The survey’s designers stress the data is still being analysed, but one interesting finding has emerged with some clarity: most people claim not to be swayed by celebrity-fronted campaigns, but they do think that other people are swayed by them. Which suggests that celebrity campaigns are popularly believed to be popular – but falsely so.
If this is true, it would require such a rethink of the way causes advance themselves that all sorts of heads might explode. The UN has a whole celebrity outreach department, while the celebrity liaison officers of UK charities are so legion they hold regular forums. Celebrity advocacy has even developed its own awards industry, hosting glitzy galas where showbiz humanitarians are given gongs. Angelina Jolie has won at least five, most of which were confected for her, and even Paris Hilton has a couple. (Those who devote 365 days of the year to working tirelessly and anonymously on these causes don’t seem to be eligible.)
Shamefully, of course, the reason charities feel they have to deploy entertainers in this way is because the media – across the board, though to varying degrees – have become progressively less willing to highlight an issue, or capable of it, without a celebrity’s involvement. It’s a vicious cycle, rarely broken by anything that might be considered “actual research”, which makes the IDS’s survey such an interesting nugget.
It certainly seems superior to recent research in which some US undergraduates were presented with a selection of celebrities and social causes, as a detailed questionnaire sought to determine which star would be the most effective advocate for a cause, in terms of their fit with the mission and their ability to make people part with money. The results indicated that the best celebrity to “help a child in extreme poverty” was Kim Kardashian. Can Kim Kardashian really change the world? You know, for the better? Or does giving American college students course credits for participating in studies like these (as happened in this case) go on to skew all kinds of debates more important than “do you reckon Kim’s 72-day marriage was a stunt?”.
Alas, the idea that celebrity advocacy may not be the answer to some of the world’s most intractable problems appears yet to have taken meaningful hold of the charitable imagination. But there are a few more questioning voices. Last year, research produced in conjunction with Oxfam concluded that charities should be deeply suspicious of the long-term values a strategy of celebrity association would promote. “Celebrities should be used with extreme care in campaigns,” the report’s authors declared, “given the strong links between celebrity culture, consumer culture and the values of self-interest.” They warned that celebrity advocacy promoted brief and shallow engagement, quick transactions, and no “supporter journey”, which is at best no long-term strategy, and at worst corrosive.
But it’s not just that a near-universal celebrity-driven approach fundamentally changes the nature of people’s engagement with causes, or that it over-empowers entertainers. It’s that genuinely expert voices are crowded out of the debate, which effectively denies progressive forces the chance to create their own “celebrities” organically. There’s a tireless and impassioned Indian woman named Sunitha Krishnancampaigning on trafficking in India – but convention demands you never hear of her, and the likes of Lindsay Lohan get the gig.
Even more troubling than the heroes who remain unsung are the arguments left unheard. Despite their self-images, most stars – particularly the biggest US ones – tend to be extremely conservative in their choice of causes, acutely aware that anti-establishment messages put off paying fans who may sit on a different part of the political spectrum. The effect is to anchor the debate firmly on the middle ground, leaving completely in the dark the sorts of more radical arguments that have always been a crucial element of change. And therein, perhaps, lies the most unthinkable question. Do celebrities actually legitimise the status quo?