Emma Watson on feminism, Leonardo Dicaprio on climate change, and Angelina Jolie on humanitarian rights. Celebrities are taking over our screens for the cause. Going back to Jane Fonda protesting the Vietnam War, and alternately Elvis advocating for conscription, we have allowed celebrities to influence not only our storytelling, but also our political and social views.
Have we mindlessly prioritized the message of celebrities over that of professors, experts, victims or activists? Or, is it possible that celebrity activists are the perfect vehicle to effect the change that we need?
The following are three positive, and three negative positions on celebrity activists.
Taking the Stage (The Pros)
A Wide and Captive Audience
Conversations are being instigated by celebrities every day, even indirectly. There are tens of celebrities on Twitter, not to mention Instagram, with tens of millions of followers, some of whom even have more than 100 million followers. #MeToo first surfaced a decade ago at the keyboard of activist Taran Burke, but with one tweet from Alyssa Milano, a worldwide movement was launched. Burke has said that after watching her movement grow in slow waves over the years, seeing it grow en masse “has been pretty amazing.” Simply being famous provides a wider platform for celebrities to get a message across. When Michelle Obama took to Twitter to raise awareness for kidnapped Nigerian girls, the world paid attention. The minute Kim Kardashian took up the cause for prison reform, she was able to meet with President Trump at the White House. And after Taylor Swift broke her long-held silence on politics, voter registration spiked by 65,000 new registered voters in the first 24 hours.
Using Old Tactics to Change The World
When a celebrity gives their endorsement to a product, they generate brand recognition and provide a sense of familiarity and trust, which equals sales. In fact, just one celebrity endorsement can boost sales of a product by 4% almost immediately, according to Marketwatch, as cited by Forbes. So, if celebrity endorsement can boost product sales, why not use the same model to boost social responsibility? The UN has been using Goodwill Ambassadors as representatives for decades. Becoming a UN Goodwill Ambassador means going through a vetting system that requires having a sizeable number of followers as well as producing the right kind of image. To represent a charity means living your life in accordance with their message, which some celebrities embrace and embody willingly. In these cases, celebrity activists can do a world of good.
Celebrities Are People Too
In terms of mental illness, abuse and poverty, no one is immune, not even celebrities. But unlike the 1 in 10 Americans suffering from depression, celebrities have a platform to shed light. Members of the British Royal Family have openly discussed depression and therapy, peeling back the stigma surrounding mental health and celebrity, showing the world that everyone is susceptible. Jim Carrey speaks frankly about being homeless as a young teen. He is explicitly a part of the conversation surrounding the charities to which he contributes fighting at risk youth and homelessness. And he is only one example of celebrities inspired by their pasts. Everyone has a story, yet some of us are given a larger stage than others on which to express it. Celebrity activists should be commended for embracing such a stage.
All That Shimmers Is Not Gold (The Cons)
Where Have All the Experts Gone?
By giving our time and educating ourselves through celebrity activism, we discount experts who have given unwavering dedication to the cause. Sixty-six percent of people surveyed in a recent poll could not link a celebrity with their sponsored charity. These numbers suggest that celebrity is not enough to sell an idea, and yet you’re more likely to hear about climate change from Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio than professional environmentalist Al Gore or actual climate scientists. In many cases, the celebrity name will stick while the cause won’t, leaving actual experts desperate for an audience.
When Your Audience is Focused on Image Over Education
Supporting celebrity activists contributes to the culture of failure and promotes what is called Slacktivism. This relatively new term, Slackstivism, describes people who consider themselves online activists but are actually more concerned with appearing to join the right cause but, in actuality, doing as little as possible to make a difference. When activism is a trend, misinformation runs rampant. The culture of failure puts so much pressure on succeeding that we forget how to sit back and educate ourselves, and to take the time to decide what we believe in and, more importantly, how to act on these beliefs.
100% Exposure with 0% Accountability
When a politician endorses a candidate, or a doctor endorses a program, there must be accountability. However, in the world of celebrity, staying relevant is a constant battle. This means that celebrities often need to reinvent themselves, which can affect the cause(s) they are supporting.
When the City of New York made Taylor Swift its Global Welcome Ambassador, officials were connecting to and counting on her “wholesome” image. Strategically timed with the release of her single “Welcome to New York,” Swift’s image at that time was perfect for New York’s tourism board. However, by the time Swift’s next album dropped, her previously wholesome image had dramatically changed. Or, take Beyonce. In 2011, she joined Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat child obesity. However, just one year later, she sent mixed messages to America’s youth when becoming the face of Pepsi and promoting sugary soft-drink consumption. In such cases, the image as an entertainer comes before their cause, adding a layer of hypocrisy to some celebrity activists.
The Bottom Line: The old adage goes: There is no such thing as bad publicity. There are many voices trying to be heard on the stage of social reform. Is this a case of leave it to the experts, or does every voice count in the push for social reform?