Celebrity and development: the other side to advocacy

By Robert Watt, PhD researcher, SEED

Bono & Ali Hewson for Louis Vuitton

Surveys show that the British public is wrong about nearly everything. One more topic should be added to this list of falsehood: celebrity. Just as we vastly overestimate the level of unemployment, the number of immigrants and the rate of teen pregnancy, so too we greatly overemphasise the public appetite for celebrity. As Dan Brockington explained in his Global Development seminar, even though research shows that surprisingly few people care for celebrities, these ‘popular’ figures still matter in development.

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LISTEN | Dan Brockington on the paradoxes of celebrity advocacy

The second seminar in our Global Development series took place yesterday, with Professor Daniel Brockington. Dan spoke on the paradoxes of celebrity advocacy in international development in the UK, and their consequences both for development and democratic processes.

Dan’s talk drew on themes addressed in his 2014 book, Celebrity Advocacy and International Development.

Listen to the talk:

The Global Development Seminar Series brings together scholars involved in cutting edge research on international development. It aims to facilitate dialogue and discussion, providing a space for leading development thinkers to share their latest research ideas with Manchester’s staff and students.

Listen to the first seminar, with IDS Director Melissa Leach on Equality, Sustainability & Security: Towards Transformations in a Global Development Era.

Consuming celebrity advocacy

By Dan Brockington

One of the most intriguing facts about celebrity is how little we know about how the general public respond to it. And, when you do try and find out, then one of the most intriguing things is how little notice many people appear to take of it. Yes, there are studies of fans and fandom. But fans are not necessarily the best indicators of how broader publics respond to celebrities. Indeed, by definition (the word is short for ‘fanatic’) a fan is an unusually committed supporter.

Certainly there are lots of studies of celebrity in advertising. But most of these are based on US college students. In fact, they have only recently begun looking outside the US and in doing so have discovered that US subjects are more susceptible to celebrity advertisements than other groups. In short, we still do not know much about how different people in different countries respond to celebrity.

As part of my work on celebrity advocacy, I conducted two large-scale questionnaires, each of over 1000 people, and 9 focus groups. You have to be careful when using this sort of research in understanding media use. As Jo Littler put it to me, we cannot simply read ‘truth’ from these findings; after all we aren’t always fully conscious of exactly how we are being influenced. Different research techniques, involving more in-depth interviews, observation or diaries are also required. I have not undertaken these because I did not have the time to do so, so more research is required! But, to the extent that the sort of work that I undertook is useful, the findings are reasonably clear. They are simply that celebrity advocacy is not noticed very much by many of the general British public.

This is partly because we do not concern ourselves with celebrity affairs generally. We come across it incidentally when reading about other things. It is partly because we just do not seem to find it very interesting, or even very exciting. Only about 20% of people spend more than 5 minutes a week reading or talking about it. It is an oddly uninspiring thing. This is best expressed in the words of a television executive who worked a great deal with celebrity and was keen on introducing effective celebrity programming into her work, but who said that:

‘Mostly I’ve found that a lot of communities who really take their cause seriously don’t really care about the celebrity angle… and you think, wow we might all be kissing the ground that these people walk on day and night because that’s what the industry is used to but when it actually comes to real people’s lives and their experiences it makes no difference.’

It’s partly because celebrity advocacy works in counterintuitive ways. People who are most interested in celebrity (generally young women) are least interested in their celebrities’ advocacy of good causes; they like celebrity in part because it is precisely not dull, worthy and political. As Rachel put it during a focus group discussion about Bono:

‘To be honest I’m quite lost in all of this… I don’t even know who Bono is. I felt kind of stupid not knowing who that is, but to be honest I’m living a life where I don’t care. Most of my friends are ooh yeah Peter Andre, that’s nice, he looks quite fit. I know it’s quite shallow… but… For me celebrities and charities don’t mix very well.’

Conversely, those who are most sympathetic to celebrity advocacy are generally least amenable to celebrity itself. They are sympathetic because they already like those causes. For the purposes of international development this means that they are rather few, for the needs of international development excite only a small proportion of the population.

If all this is true, how can celebrity advocacy possibly ‘work’? The key is that much of celebrity is mediated; it is experienced more or less remotely via screens, print or radio waves. But personal encounters matter more. They mean our lives are touched by the glamour of the media world. Most especially, they work for the political and corporate elites who matter so much for fundraising and lobbying.

It works also because the British public, when they do come across celebrity advocacy, are remarkably sympathetic towards it. While a great deal of celebrity advocacy passes by rather unnoticed, we cannot escape it during the great telethons that periodically appear on our television screens. We tend to applaud because it raises money, and because we think that development problems can be solved with such charity. Curiously however, we are often better at remembering who undertook these tasks, particularly if they suffered for it, than what precisely they were suffering for.

The final, and rather ironic, reason why it works is simply because of the belief in celebrity power. The British public think that celebrity will get media attention, and that the media attention will bring public attention. As one of the focus group members commented, ‘the bottom line is that any celebrity will get a charity media coverage and that has to be good’. However, on inspection, few of the British public pay much attention to celebrity, but the vast majority of us think, falsely, that everyone else is looking. In our surveys, 74% of respondents thought that other people pay more attention to celebrity than them. That is impossible. Yet so many were keen to emphasise how little they themselves were swayed by it. In the same surveys, only 3% of respondents were prepared to consider that other people could think less of celebrity than they did.

The power of celebrity then, is not that people are looking and listening, but that we all think that they are. Indeed, this also explains the frustrations that celebrity liaison officers experienced in working with celebrity in their organisations that I mentioned in the previous blog. The belief in celebrity advocacy helps to explain its politics, and how even without much actual public interest it can still flourish in contemporary democracies. But to understand how it works, we need to better understand thinking on post-democracy, and to this we turn in the final installment.

Links and Further information
This blog summarises a newly published paper (scroll down to May 8th on that page) which is available on an open access license from this site. That paper, and others from this research are available on this page, and more about the research project behind it is available here.

This is the second in a series of three blogs which explores different aspects of celebrity advocacy. The work was funded by the ESRC (RES 070-27-0035).

Constructing celebrity advocacy

By Daniel Brockington

Celebrity is a normal part of development business these days. While we can all point to famous development advocates, I suspect that most of us do not know the extent to which development NGOs in Britain, and indeed the whole NGO sector, has transformed itself as part of an effort to work more effectively, and successfully with celebrity advocates. This blog describes this transformation and some of the tensions it has produced.

Most major development NGOs now have full time celebrity liaison officers who meet regularly in London in monthly forums, and have space on their websites dedicated to celebrity ambassadors, and advice to other charities. There are dedicated websites, blogs, and sections in papers concentrating on celebrity advocacy. In Hollywood, major talent agencies have full time members of staff who manage the charitable interests of their clients. Celebrity advocacy, and celebrity charity more generally, is a niche element of the celebrity industries, building celebrity brand, and the brands of the causes and companies associated with them.

It is particularly surprising how quickly this systematic organisation of celebrity advocacy has happened. Celebrity advocacy for worthy causes overseas has its iconic moments (Band Aid in 1984, Live Aid in 1985, and Princess Diana walking through cleared minefields in 1997) but the professional organisation of celebrity-charity has emerged strongly since the millennium. In order to understand the celebrity advocacy phenomenon, I interviewed just over 120 people: celebrity liaison officers, journalists, media professionals, and agents and publicists in the celebrity industries.

It is clear from these interviews that the celebrity industries themselves are not as enthusiastic about these relationships as the NGO community would like them to be. Celebrity ambassadors are, almost always, not paid for their work for NGOs. And for that reason charities’ many requests are not always welcome. Many agents tell their clients to choose three charities, stick with them, and do three or four events a year. All the others – and there can be hundreds of requests a week for prominent clients – can simply be ignored. The better liaison officers, who have established good associations with celebrities, will also seek to establish enduring professional relationships with the agents, for the agents are likely to have a much longer professional life than any individual celebrity. Nonetheless, it is also plain that even celebrities most committed to their charities are subject to the whims of their trade. Lucrative commercial contracts may pop up at inconvenient moments that will make it impossible to honour other commitments. That is part of the territory.

It is against this background that celebrity liaison officers have to try to build enduring relationships with celebrity patrons – because enduring relationships will appear more authentic in the press, and are more likely to be fruitful for their organisation. For development organisations, the classic, and most rewarding, means of doing so was the field trip, which could be life-changing for the celebrities involved. But these are rare and expensive, and in their absence other means have to be found of deepening celebrity commitment and associations. Curiously, this can mean organising events for the celebrity to attend, but where the purpose of the event is to deepen the relationship with them. One of the officers spoke of ‘creat(ing) situations where talent can come learn about something’; another was ‘working to invent’ domestic events as a way of deepening relationships until the opportunity came along for a field trip.

In constructing these events liaison officers have to deal with a continual, annoying distraction: misconceptions on the part of their colleagues as to how celebrity can be used. These colleagues often have little understanding of the time constraints celebrities face, or their suitability or aptitude for particular tasks. Or the tasks are simply ill-thought through, with the celebrity element added in the mistaken belief that this will make a bad task ‘work’. Interviewees from the celebrity industries bemoaned the fact that many of the requests that charities proposed were simply rather boring. Ironically, a busy celebrity liaison officer will spend much time advising colleagues in the NGO not to work with celebrity. As one complained, it’s ‘maddening… half of my job, half of my week, is about managing the expectations of my colleagues’.

It quickly becomes apparent when talking to celebrity liaison officers that the rise of celebrity in the NGO movement is, at least in part, driven by corporate sponsors’ enthusiasm for celebrity ambassadors, and that this can produce particular tensions. Corporate sponsors like associations with celebrity because they offer (free) favourable publicity for their products, helping to boost their brand through links and associations with the charities’ ambassadors. Corporates can in fact make life hard for the liaison officers – for what they would like, ideally, is free celebrity endorsement of their products, which runs counter to the business model of celebrity and the goals of their agents.

All this matters because much hope is invested in the power of celebrity to raise awareness and support for development causes for particular development organisations. If celebrity advocacy is to realise these hopes, if it is to be used effectively, then we need to better understand the pressures under which it is produced. Part of the purpose of this series of blogs, and my wider research on the topic, is to facilitate that understanding. The full paper on which this installment is based provides much more detail and substance to the picture I have merely sketched here.

It matters too because one of the continual questions surrounding celebrity advocacy is whether particularly famous individuals ‘really’ care for the causes that they support or if they are just doing it for the publicity, or even payment. I find it an odd question even to ask. All of us have a mixture of motives in supporting good causes. Why should celebrities be any different? The very question elevates the celebrity to some sort of superior being who might be able to act out of pure altruism. Rather, it is by examining the structure and organisation of celebrity advocacy that we can better understand what ‘really’ causes celebrity advocacy to occur. Doing so, ironically, provides a much better setting in which to understand the role of individual motivation.

But the construction of celebrity advocacy is only part of the story. We also need to understand how it is consumed, and how that consumption varies in different audiences. We will begin that in the second blog which looks at responses to celebrity advocacy among the British public.

Links and further information
This blog summarises a newly published paper which is available on an open access license from this site. That paper, and others from this research are available on this page, and more about the research project behind it is available here.

This is the first in a series of three blogs which explores different aspects of celebrity advocacy. The work was funded by the ESRC (RES 070-27-0035).