Celebrity giving

Celebrity giving: good or not?

Companies are always keen to use celebrities and famous people to advertise their products, services and campaigns. Market research reveals that when celebrities endorse products and good causes, the general public takes notice, leading to a rise in purchases, use, or public awareness. That’s a good thing, right? Not always.

Celebrities, over the years, have advertised cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and fast food. Some still do. It’s their choice. Gradually a wave of consciousness has entered the agenda – often through social, psychological and attitudinal research, but also through health studies, social studies, economic studies, and so on. And the media plays a part: how many times have we seen a celebrity endorse good health or anti-smoking only for the media to photograph him or her with a cigarette. Mixed messages? Is it excessive to criticize “middle-ground” – why can’t a celebrity eat chocolate or have an alcoholic beverage? Should they be required to promote extreme consciousness 24/7? But should the general public be expected to give funds to a cause when companies or campaigns promote celebrity giving? Is it good or not?

The general public often condemns a celebrity for being hypocritical or relapsing into inappropriate behaviour, or is accused of not being an appropriate role model. Conversely, others take the view that the celebrity is a “real” person after all. They say it makes the celebrities more “relatable” and more “human” – and this, in turn, makes the advertisement or campaign more credible. Not so, say others. When the pubic sees celebrity actions that are contrary to the campaign message, the public often feel slightly insulted, or slightly angry, especially if celebrities are paid highly for the endorsements. Simon Chapman, professor and director of research at Sydney University’s School of Public Health, says that when the public hears that someone does something for money, the tendency is to see their authenticity as diminished.

There is no doubt that high-profile celebrity endorsements for health campaigns, such as cancer and heart disease have resulted in a spike, an elevated increase, in public awareness and often a decrease in the related illness or disease subsequent to the campaign. Celebrities can raise unprecedented awareness in the target demographic, leading to more people having medical check-ups, health scans, mammograms, and blood tests.

When the public hears that someone does something for money, the tendency is to see their authenticity as diminished.

However, in the British Medical Journal, September 2012, Geoff Rayner, honorary research fellow at London University, and Simon Chapman of Sydney University, debate whether or not celebrities should be used to endorse such campaigns. The researchers say celebrity endorsements, particularly health campaigns, can produce mixed results. They wrote, in their research, “celebrities often get involved because of a personal experience with a disease or because they share the concerns of other citizens and want to help … and like experts, some probably calculate that a public profile on good causes might also be good for their careers.” They added that, “ulterior motives aside, the ability for celebrities to bring an issue into the spotlight is second to none.” In other words, they do affect public reactions, mostly positively. Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University and director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, prefers campaigns to use real doctors and specialists, but notes the paradox that the general public rarely listens to the “real” experts in the commercial sphere.

But what about anti-poverty, human rights, child rights, and environmental campaigns where there is a request for people to give money? Celebrities, in these cases, may not always be the right medium, says Chapman and Rayner. “It’s not until you start delving into the role of celebrity culture … that the negatives begin to stack up,” Rayner said. What might be happening instead of positive messages is the promotion of “icons of rampant consumerism and fantasy lifestyles.” And, they say, celebrity status is often temporary, and fleeting.

Is any publicity good publicity? Does the good publicity outweigh the negative publicity? Celebrity giving, and the hope of public giving, can put a campaign on the world map, but it might not always be positive. Chapman and Rayner advocate that people consider both the advantages and disadvantages carefully before “blindly and indiscriminately” following their cause and giving money or time. Mixed messages can bring mixed results. Celebrity giving: good or not? Should the public support giving in response to celebrity giving? The answer is to weigh up the message, and weigh up the result. Then it’s there for the giving or leaving.

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls specialises in human rights, peace and reconciliation, disaster relief, and aid development, primarily in developing countries, states in transition, and conflict zones. She is the author of four books: The Sudan Curse, Kashmir on a Knife-Edge, Bardot’s Comet and Liberia’s Deadest Ends.

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