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Celebrities, Politics, and Development: Is it a Good Mix?

Johanna Martinsson's picture

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.

There’s a great fascination with celebrities, and a wide audience looks to them for information on various issues. Through the media and new technologies, celebrities have a well-established platform to speak out from. However, Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies and the founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, cautions that the media’s “fascination with famous spokespersons drains attention from experts with detailed knowledge, and risks the skewing of civil discourse toward solutions which may not represent effective long-term remedies for complex policy problems.” He points out several trends over the past few decades that have given celebrities a more prominent space in public policy debates in the U.S., including:  1) changes in the media structure and how it operates, 2) the rise of new technologies, and 3) changes in public opinion, due to the public’s lack of trust in political leaders.

While celebrities are effective in shedding light on issues, they are often criticized for their lack of knowledge. West points out that this lack of knowledge can be detrimental to public discourse, and particularly when it comes to international development, which is complex and requires a deep level of engagement and expertise.  West argues that “celebrity involvement in development rewards personalities instead of policies. If celebrities do not provide the public with accurate information, the system of governance is short-circuited."

So what do decision-makers think about celebrities’ involvement in development? Do celebrities help or harm the policies they are trying to implement?  InterMedia released an interesting report earlier this year on government decision-makers’ perceptions of celebrities as champions for international development (the report was part of a larger study on how to build public support for international development).  In-depth interviews were conducted with 40 senior government decision-makers in France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S .  Celebrities were defined as “high-profile or famous people on a global scale, renowned for their work in the entertainment industry and sports.”

The findings are similar to West’s analysis. First of all, decisions-makers across the different countries were cautious over celebrities’ involvement, due to their lack of in-depth knowledge and credibility. There’s a concern that celebrities are often supporting causes for the wrong reason, namely, to improve their own agenda and image.  This can harm campaigns in terms of inaccurate information and messages being circulated. They also pointed out that celebrities tend to over-focus on certain issues. This concurs with West’s argument that celebrities don’t always see the bigger picture, or fully understand the root causes of the issues they are advocating.  As an example, he refers to LiveAid in 1985. The event focused exclusively on raising money for the ongoing famine in Ethiopia, without considering the deeper issues that needed to be addressed, such as corruption and public sector reform. The outcomes of the event have been heavily discussed and criticized, as some believe that it did more harm than good.  In the end, no one knows exactly how many lives were saved, and some believe that the funds raised may have caused more deaths due to the political situation in the country at the time.

While the government decision-makers in the InterMedia study identified some drawbacks with celebrities’ involvement in international development, they acknowledged that celebrities can raise the profile of development issues to a broader audience, and influence the younger generation to support different causes. They also pointed out that celebrities are effective in raising funds, especially in international relief efforts. The report also discusses how celebrities can play a critical role in improving a politician’s own image among the general public. On the other hand, if there is an unforeseen scandal surrounding the celebrity, it can obviously hurt both the campaign and/or the cause.

For celebrities to become effective champions for development, the following characteristics were identified:

  • in-depth knowledge and genuine passion about the issue they are supporting;
  • credibility;
  • the ability to connect with all stakeholders, including government officials, international organizations and citizens; and
  • dedicated to commit long-term

The InterMedia report concludes that development organizations should engage and partner with celebrities who are deeply committed to different development causes and educate them on an ongoing basis. This will not only help deepen celebrities’ knowledge, but it will also help improve their credibility. Moreover, development organizations can facilitate the collaboration and pairing of celebrities with subject-matter experts, which would further boost credibility, particularly among decision-makers. 

In the end, celebrities can be a powerful force in development. That is, if they are serious enough about the issues they are advocating and are collaborating closely with those who have in-depth knowledge. Who knows, this might translate to something more than mere ‘noise’ at the global level.

Photo Credit: Ernst Moeksis

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