Kim, Kate and Kony: The Value of Celebrity Advocacy

Charities linked with celebrities often get attention.

Pamela Anderson’s been making waves rather a long way from the beach. In an address to the House of Lords fronting a new charity campaign, Pammy mused: “Sometimes I wonder if I am making it worse, or making it better. Am I legitimising these causes? Or the opposite?”

Anderson’s candour is refreshing in an era where celebrity is used to enhance campaigns for everything from car insurance to child poverty. In the case of charity, a large question-mark hangs over the value of celebrity involvement. It’s not a question of money – the cash donations of celebrities are as valuable as those by any of the super-rich. The problem lies in the vague goal of ‘raising awareness.’

Last year, Forbes published an assessment of the value of celebrity-charity relationships, suggesting that Justin Bieber really ought to pull his socks up. But illustrating the value of celebrity campaigning, as Forbes does, in terms of percentage ‘total fame’ – the total publicity worth of a famous figure – only tells half the story. In her pertinent article on the subject, Marina Hyde notes that Pammy is challenging “one of the orthodoxies of the age” – that celebrity advocacy is in itself a good and effective strategy for charities to adopt. Does the presence of a famous face bring automatic benefit? And does increased publicity always mean increased donations and real change?

As Hyde highlights, research on the subject is often hazy. A recent survey of American undergraduates named socialite Kim Kardashian – the epitome of hype over substance – as the ‘best fit’ celebrity advocate for child poverty campaigns. As with the BBC’s decision to send Lindsay Lohan to investigate child trafficking in India, such charity-celebrity relationships seem more about career-building than compassion. Moreover, it is unclear that media fire-power improves the reputation of a campaign – a UK Public Opinion Monitor survey suggests that 50% of the public ignore the message presented in charity campaigns fronted by celebrities, and a further 14% are actively put off. Celebrity may draw superficial attention to a cause, but their worth is limited in involving the public in the meat of a message.

The fact remains that however high-profile a campaign, media attention cannot translate awareness into action – or better yet, real change. The initial success of the KONY 2012 viral campaign to depose Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, attracting numerous celebrity advocates, was quickly overshadowed by media controversy surrounding the charity responsible and, crucially, the question of how sharing a link on Facebook was supposed to help capture and kill an elusive African guerrilla fighter. Like the Make Poverty History campaign before it, KONY 2012 succeeded primarily in showing the limits of its own strategy: celebrity involvement, and media spin in general, can serve to mask or oversimplify a message, and distract attention from those actually working towards change.

But is all celebrity detrimental? The much-heralded patronage of four charities by royal-du-jour the Duchess of Cambridge attracted much press and praise earlier this year, with charities celebrating Kate’s ability to boost morale and donations in difficult economic circumstances. Royal advocacy certainly has benefits – high-profile social circles provide lucrative networking opportunities, and access to exclusive venues. The royal appeal is partly a case of demographics – where the Duchess draws attention from a broad spectrum of the public, including older and wealthier potential donors, the likes of Kim Kardashian can hope at best to garner attention from the younger audiences of internet gossip sites, and their relatively limited funds. As KONY 2012 proved, internet hype often descends into slacktivism – participation is easy, but impact limited.

In the charity stakes, then, Kate beats Kim hands down. The value of celebrity endorsement is tied to the reputation of the celeb in question. The power of media is vast but fickle – charities should tread carefully when selecting their famous bed-fellows, and ‘awareness’ should be a tool for change, not a goal in itself. When image is everything, charities must take care that their campaigns do not become mere publicity stunts, and their motivations and message become masked by the glitter of fame.

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