You know those pictures of Angelina Jolie hugging a starving child in Chad? Elton John singing at AIDS fundraisers? Bono being everywhere all over Africa in campaigns against poverty? There is a very good reason why celebrities lend their names and faces to development causes: it works. By the sheer force of their fame they draw attention to issues that would normally not be on our radar screen and they are able to mobilize parts of the population that does not always have access to information about development issues. So all you need to do is put a famous face on your cause and you’re set for success – increased awareness, increased attention, increased funding, and sometimes even behavior change? It’s not quite as easy as this. Picking the right celebrity is important, or the whole thing can backfire. Here are a few dos and don’ts when involving celebrities in a cause.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about a small airfare tax that’s been implemented in a number of countries to help fight three of the world’s deadliest diseases. The idea behind the initiative (UNITAID) is to raise funds by applying a small levy on domestic and international flights; a levy so small that most people do not even take notice. It’s interesting what the success of this method says about us and human behavior. Let’s say, had a traveler been given the option to donate $1 before purchasing the air ticket, the outcome of UNITAID would probably have been very different. While studies show that there’s a strong connection between giving and the level of happiness, most people opt out. Why?
David Brooks of The New York Times points out that “we spend trillions of dollars putting policies and practices into place, but most of these efforts are based on the crudest possible psychological guesswork.” Understanding behavioral sciences is important. As he points out, sometimes “behavioral research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue,” and result in new policy approaches. He’s referring to one well-known example, which has to do with default settings: “Roughly 98 percent of people take part in organ donor programs in European countries where you have to check a box to opt out. Only 10 percent or 20 percent take part in neighboring countries where you have to check a box to opt in.” There’s something magical about the check box!
The use of celebrities to promote causes and political campaigns has been around for some time. It’s nothing new, yet it's a fascinating topic. With the U.S. election just around the corner, celebrities seem to be popping up everywhere endorsing their preferred candidate, speaking out on issues they deem important, and raising money, lots of money, for the campaigns. As Sina mentioned in a previous post, there is not a doubt that celebrities are effective in attracting attention to issues, but as he said “noise is not the same thing as impact.” The level of influence celebrities have on policy-making and affecting change on the ground has long been debated.
It is all too easy to be cynical about celebrities backing causes. You wonder: are they serious or is all this for show? Did the public relations people ask him or her to do it to sell more tickets or help recover from a scandal? And things have happened around celebrities championing all manner of causes that fuel the cynicism. A story in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine covers the phenomenon very well: ‘Looking Good: The new boom in celebrity philanthropy’ by John Colapinto (March 26, 2012, page 56). In it you will find fascinating stories about what different celebrities have been up to and how things are turning out. This summing up attributed to Ken Berger of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group, says it all:
Celebrities and the causes they champion seem to go together these days like burger and fries. It is becoming the norm: Make a name, acquire a cause.
And we shouldn't knock that. It is good that the world's famous, rich and often beautiful people are also trying to do some good. I must admit, however, that it is difficult to avoid some skepticism. As an African, for instance, I am not always comfortable with the number of celebrities who have 'adopted' and claim to speak for my continent. Sometimes, watching one of them speak about Africa as though they owned it, my reaction jumps from mild irritation to rage. In fact, the article that prompted this blog post (a piece in the winter edition of FTWealth Magazine titled 'With or without you') contains some acerbic views regarding 'celebvocates' and what they get up to. Apparently, the journalist Brendan O'Neill calls it 'celebrity colonialism". And the writer Paul Theroux supposedly railed in the New York Times that: