Stars like Bono, Sting, and Angelina Jolie are renowned not only for their songs and movies, but also for their humanitarian work. Turn on the TV, and you’re likely to see an ad featuring a celebrity endorsing some good cause or another. But according to two new studies, this kind of high-profile support may boost the reputations of the celebrities themselves more than it helps the causes they are championing.
After conducting two surveys of more than 1,000 people and running focus groups, the researchers, from three U.K. universities, have concluded that celebrity promotion is “generally ineffective” at raising awareness and getting the public to care about the distant suffering of strangers–at least with British audiences.
But there’s an even more surprising implication. The frequent failure of celebrity advocacy to engage the public may not really matter. The real audience for celebrity endorsements often isn’t the public, says University of Manchester researcher Dan Brockington. “Well-versed celebrities can be very effective lobbyists, or high-value fundraisers, because political and corporate elites love meeting them. The rise of celebrity in NGOs in Britain is driven by corporate demand for them,” he says.
In one of the studies, two-thirds of the survey respondents couldn’t link any celebrity with the well-known charities that they support, like Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Rather than paying attention to celebrity endorsements, study participants explained that they decide which charities to support based on personal connections in their lives and those of their family members. That makes sense–most people’s Facebook feeds are littered with appeals from friends who are raising money for a variety of causes.
“The evidence suggests, therefore, that the ability of celebrity advocacy to reach people is limited, and dominated in Britain by some extremely prominent telethons and the work of a few stars,” write Brockington and his University of Sussex researcher Spensor Henson colleague in their study, published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies.
The researchers aren’t implying that celebrities are self-serving on purpose. Even if they are acting genuinely out of passion for a cause, as many appear to do, the effect is that their advocacy draws most of the attention to themselves, the studies show.
It goes to show that charities should think twice before spending too much of their energies recruiting famous figures (at least in the U.K.), says Brockington, especially as a means of gaining new supporters. He notes celebrities might be a better means of forming stronger relationships with existing supporters, and their most effective use is in talking to other “elites.”
“My argument therefore is that celebrity advocacy which is now so well organised by NGOs marks, ironically, a disengagement between the public and politics, and particularly between the public and the civil society organisations which try to represent development and humanitarian needs. It is not an expression of the popular will because the evidence indicates that interest in celebrity seems rather thinner and more variable than we might expect. Its rise has not been fuelled by popular demand but by corporate power. Celebrity advocacy is by and for elites.”