Earlier this year the Mail Online became the second most read newspaper website in the world, surpassing The Huffington Post. Its owners have since released a statement which outlined why they projected that they would overtake New York Times in the number one spot, citing the introduction of a Times paywall and the huge, unprecedented success of the Mail iPhone app as indicators of, respectively, probable decline and continued growth for the two sites. This is, I think we can all agree, terrifying.
The vast majority of hits for the Mail come from its celebrity section – who hates who in Tinseltown, gripping updates from the coalface of ‘talent’ search shows, endless sex scandals, Pippa Middleton’s bottom and much, much less. Again, terrifying, but by no means surprising. ‘Celeb culture’ is very much one of the dominant cultural narratives of the past few decades – as pointed out by the mountains of op-eds and columns that have allowed their writers to dutifully worry about or roundly condemn (depending on political allegiance) the changing values of the modern world.
The importance of celebrities in the news world inevitably means that put-upon press officers and communication managers at charities and NGOs start hankering for a celebrity figurehead to raise awareness for their latest campaign. Celebrity endorsement and the inherent increase of media attention not only allows particular campaigns to get more awareness but also gets the name and brand of your charity into the public eye thus very much increasing your ability to fundraise. I imagine that getting Katie Price to back your campaign in a double page ‘tell all’ feature in The Sun would lead to hugging in the office and cake all round.
I recently went to an activist training event hosted by ONE. Contrary to popular opinion ONE was not named specifically to fuel co-founder Bono’s Jesus complex, actually it’s all to do with spreading a message of unity and highlighting the relatively small sacrifices (1% of profits etc) needed to end world hunger. They’re the people who brought you ‘Make Poverty History’ in 2005 and those faddy little rubber wrist bands that everyone used to have. Obviously, they didn’t make poverty history but they did raise an awful lot of money so I thought I’d hear what they had to say.
At the training, Jamie Drummond, another co-founder, said that the Make Poverty History campaign was designed to “take a niche issue and turn it pop” – turn the third world debt issue into something that was known about and discussed in the mainstream media and in non third-sector offices. The best way of doing that was to get people in the entertainment industry on board because, frankly, pretty much no other set of people get as much coverage or have as many followers.
Celebrity endorsement has been around for a long time in advertising but has only been properly embraced by do-gooders in the last ten years or so – there’s ONE with Bono and Bob Geldof, the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, or Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham’s fundraising charity walks for Leukaemia and Lymphoma.
Of course, ‘old media’ is dying, new and social media are taking over the landscape – it’s a revolution for the means of production! It changes how news is reported and examined! There are new influencers and new key figures on the news agenda!Ordinary people have a voice! Oh wait.
Ah. Not quite so different then. It is still all about celebrities (Barack Obama is the exception, whoever he is). Interestingly, last week Bill Easterly – a leading development blogger in webland – mentioned Justin Bieber in a tweet that shoehorned him into an attack on World Bank policy in a tongue in cheek reference to who people are really interested in on Twitter. It showed that using celebrities can draw attention to niche subjects, even in a simple or jokey way.
So what’s the problem?
Here are a few reasons that some charities decide not to ally themselves to celebrities:
- Trivialising issues: the nature of ‘celeb’ coverage is light-hearted and shallow, is this really a suitable way of introducing the mainstream to global development issues?
- Western bias: Celebrities tend to be both American and wealthy. The ongoing criticism of Western aid organisations is that they ignore the voices of those they try to help – using Western celebrities only reinforces the distinction between rich Westerners and poor Africans.
- Mis-direction: I suspect that people remember the events (like LiveAid) and their stars more than they remember the actual issues. The ‘Feed The World’ song (notwithstanding that I find its lyrics grossly inappropriate and condescending) is now regularly re-played as a Christmas song. Does that seem like the legacy a product of a campaign against famine?
“In any UNHCR office,” she explained to the assembled diners, “in any one of the many areas around the world, you will find an amazing mix of hard-working and often very tired people.”
Well quite. Where you won’t find those people, however, is on a stage picking up an award with the same frequency that Angelina seems to accrue such baubles. Time and again, that honour is reserved for actors and singers who devote a comparatively minuscule amount of their time to the same causes, in between taking home vast paycheques for their day-jobs in the entertainment industry.
Is it a nuisance worth putting up with?
Sure, it’s rare that a non-famous/attractive charity worker gets an award for their day job but it’s equally rare that such a person garners an enormous amount of media coverage and money for their cause.
Personally, I think that until the mainstream media a) completely dies or b) becomes substantially less myopic and idiotic than it largely is now, then we probably have to play their game. That means getting celebrities on board and letting our dinner jackets collect dust from now until forever.