Celebrity activism: ‘Sometimes I wonder if I am making it worse, or making it better’

‘Sometimes I wonder if I am making it worse, or making it better. Am I legitimising these causes? Or the opposite? Who knows?’

Who would have thought a post on a development education blog would have opened with a quote from Pamela Anderson? Not me, that’s for sure! But after reading an article on celebrity advocacy from Marina Hyde of The Guardian, and the Baywatch legend’s reflection on her own career as a PETA activist in the House of Lord’s recently, it got me thinking about celebrity advocacy: do they actually have an impact or – to quote the wonderfully cynical Marina Hyde – are we ‘all poorer when we seek Kim Kardashian’s take on poverty’?

‘Who knows?’ is a very good question and the answer is most likely that no one really knows. Lets take a look at some of the main arguments:

Arguments for:

  • Celebs help focus world attention on important political and social justice issues, elevating an issue to national or even international prominence. Whether a celebrity’s personal profile is subsequently raised should be of no importance, so long as the ‘greater good’ is served.
  • Big public events such as Live 8 and Make Poverty History campaigns would have been impossible without celebrity involvement and endorsement. Were it not for their campaigning, the Drop the Debt agenda would have fallen off the media radar much quicker.
  • Celebs are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Are we hypocrites by mocking and denouncing them when they use their fame for the greater good? We have no reason to believe that celebrities who dedicate their time and effort to a cause are not genuinely passionate about them. Or does being a celebrity automatically preclude them from voicing their political views?

Arguments against:

  • Celebs are hypocrites! They preach about climate change – but go on mega carbon emitting world tours; they talk of ending world poverty; but practice tax avoidance and have been known to pose for photos with and perform for corrupt leaders – often the same leaders whose policies perpetuate the very injustices being campaigned against.
  • They are patronising! Images of Bono meeting world leaders at the G8 has been perceived to be patronising – the implication being that African leaders are unimportant in their own agenda or incapable of negotiating their own terms.
  • They are misguided! Activities have been critical of the intellectual thinking behind these celeb-driven initiatives such as the ‘Product RED’ initiative (Mark Rosenman comments about how Product RED is wrong on so many levels – ‘its self-serving, it makes us think that shopping can solve the world’s ills, it lacks transparency’). It’s not that there is a problem with the campaigning itself, it’s the form of protest that is being promoted. Wearing poverty bracelets and encouraging people to buy the world out of its problems (as the RED project does) does nothing to challenge the issues at all. It is a smokescreen which allows people to avoid facing up to the harsh realities of why poverty and inequality exist and persist in the first place, and to realise what our moral obligation is in relation to them.
  • It is Cultural Imperialism! Celeb campaigning perpetuates the clichéd images of sick, helpless, starving Africans that need to be rescued by the West. Charles Abugre of Christian Aid, when discussing Live 8, stated: ‘A serious occasion was turned into a celebration of celebrities…There were millions of people watching, but what was the analysis? What was the message? It was of hand-outs and charity not one of liberation defined by African’s themselves’. Aminata Traore, co-initiator of the African Social Forum and former minister in Mali argued: ‘It wasn’t just about putting us firmly in our place as recipients of charity, not actors in our own right. Africa’s misery is a great product to sell, above all for companies, consultants and certain cultural actors and celebrities’.

The UK Public Opinion Monitor (an initiative of the Institute of Development Studies) carried out a large-scale survey recently addressing this very issue.  Although the data from the survey is still being analysed, one very interesting finding is emerging: the majority of people claim that they are NOT swayed by celebrity endorsed campaigns; however, they believe other people are. Does this mean that there is a false belief that the celebrity endorsement benefits charities or campaigns? Or is it the case that the only way a charity will be acknowledged by the media is by using someone’s celebrity, hence their involvement?

Other research carried out in conjunction with Oxfam focuses on these issues also. It concluded that ‘celebrities should be used with extreme care in campaigns, given the strong links between celebrity culture, consumer culture and the values of self-interest’. It warns that celeb advocacy promoted brief and shallow engagement, quick transactions and no ‘supporter journey’ – which basically means no long-term interaction with the campaign, issue or charity.

Image source: Bob Geldof & Bono (2007) by U2005.com on Flickr

So, can the Kim Kardashians/ Bonos/ George Clooneys/ Pammys/Lindsey Lohans of the world really make an impact? Do their endorsements encourage the public to become more involved? Donate more? Encourage the public to seek out more information on the issue at hand? Or does it simply mean that these crucial global issues get placed at the same level of public interest as any other inane celeb gossip such as 72-day marriages, botched boob jobs  and if Bono really is a plonker or not, rather than being discussed and debated properly in a serious public forum? Does the ego overshadow the issues at hand? Are celebs doing it for their own good, for extra media attention? Or do you think they are sincere in their actions?

Why not read Marina Hyde’s article, read actor David’s Harewood’s response as a celebrity advocate, read the research carried out on this subject from Oxfam and from the UK Public Opinion Monitor? Is it all subjective, or is there more to it? Tell us what you think…


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