After hearing that former Fugee and musical star Wyclef Jean is running to be the President of Haiti (despite not having lived there for decades and apparently not actually speaking French very well), I got to thinking – what other musical super stars could run as leaders to help fix the nations of the world? In what way could Lady Gaga help with nation-building projects? Could Paul McCartney advise the World Bank in any way (other than being able to possibly fund a small third world nation by himself for a year)?
Among the insights of New Yorker’s analysis of Obama’s campaign” is this interesting discussion of “celebrity blowback”:
“In July… a McCain ad compared Obama to Paris Hilton. What seemed to outsiders like a trivial, even ridiculous attack had an enormous impact inside Obama’s headquarters.
The campaign kept Obama away from celebrities as much as possible. A Hollywood fund-raiser with Barbra Streisand became a source of deep anxiety and torturous discussions. In Denver, celebrities who in past Presidential campaigns would have had major speaking roles were shielded from public view. “We spent hours trying to celebrity-down the Democratic National Convention,” the aide said.”
Interesting, since so much scholarship has recently trumpeted the importance and special legitimacy of celebrities on the public policy process, global diplomcay, and transnational advocacy campaigns. Dan Drezner’s article in TNI last November was optimistic about the role of such players, if not falling for the idea that they do it for pure altruism. Andrew Cooper’s recent book Celebrity Diplomacy paints a similarly rosy view of these actors. The journal Global Governance recently ran a forum on celebrity diplomacy with contributions by Cooper, Heribert Dieter and Rajiv Kumar.
If celebrities indeed have both special power and increasingly legitimacy in the policy process, why wouldn’t Obama’s handlers assume this metaphor might help rather than hurt him? Their reaction might be the best indicator that the credibility of celebrities in policy is overrated.
My graduate students have dug up some data suggesting an explanation. In my course on “Global Agenda-Setting” at University of Massachusetts, they have been tracing seven global campaigns that have taken place since the end of the Cold War, including the causal impact (if any) of celebrities. Thematic issues examined included HIV-AIDS, Disability Rights, Cluster Munitions, Child Soldiers, Trafficking, Conflict Diamonds, and Sexual Exploitation by UN Personnel. Overall, they found that while celebrities are all over many of these issues, in myriad ways, their influence on global agenda-setting tends to be minimal at best.
Here’s why: with the exception of issues where they are personally affected, celebrities generally don’t get involved in campaigns until they’re basically over. While one can’t infer too much from a few cases, and while the data here is limited by the exhaustiveness with which each student search for evidence of celebrity involvement, the seven cases they tracked suggest celebrities mostly endorse issues that already have a solid place on the policy agenda: it is rare for the glitterati to function as norm entrepreneurs or agenda-setters.
As the graph above demonstrates, celebrity involvement in the campaigns we studied typically post-dated the emergence of governance around a policy problem. For example, child soldiers began attracting celebrities not during the campaign of the late 1990s, but three years after the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed; celebrities gravitated toward conflict diamonds in 2005, two years after the Kimberly Process had been negotiated. The graph above shows a similar pattern across four of our seven cases; in one case, Sexual Exploitation by UN Personnel, celebrities have stayed aloof entirely.
The campaigns we looked at where celebrity involvement may have significantly affected political opportunity structure of an issue are HIV-AIDS and Disability Rights, where celebrities functioned as living exemplars of the issues, helping to reduce stigma and popularize the notion that AIDS or disability can happen to anyone. While the self-interested nature of celebrity activism around these issues undermines the idea that they were purely altruistic, it also increases the cache of celebrity voices in the agenda-setting process because they are speaking as claimants as well as champions. Celebrities also tend to get involved much earlier in the policy process on these sorts of issues, giving themselves a chance to have a real impact rather than simply bandwagoning on others’ efforts.
Some other insights / thoughts:
To look more closely celebrity activism, it needs to be disaggregated into different varieties in order to tease out the causal importance of each on different phases in the global policy cycle. Our class identified at least six ways in which celebrities may assist in drawing attention to issues:
1) Lobbying, where celebrities use their access to elites to press for specific policy changes. Examples are Bono’s lobbying Jesse Helms on Debt Relief, or Edward Zwieck’s engagement with the diamond industry on conflict diamonds.
2) Campaigning, where celebrities visibly associate themselves with or endorse specific causes. Patrick Stewart played this role when he kicked off Amnesty International’s campaign on Violence Against Women; Ben Affleck has done this for the issue of child soldiering through his public association with Save the Children’s Rewrite the Future campaign.
3) Spokesmodeling, where celebrities lend their faces to public interest advertisements, whether or not for money. Gwyneth Paltrow’s advertising for the “I Am Africa” campaign constitutes an example.
4) Resource Transfers, where celebrities function as donors. This includes establishing foundations, such as Elton John’s AIDS Foundation; conducting benefits, such as LiveAid; and personal donations to causes.
5) Artifacts, when celebrities use their creative energy on projects to draw attention to specific problems. This can be overt, such as the film Blood Diamond and Kanye West’s song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” ; alternatively, artists can embed issue advocacy into unrelated entertainment media, as Daughtry did with the music video for its ballad What About Now?.
6) Personification, when celebrities serve as poster children for particular issues because of their personal relationship to the problem. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve did this for disability; Magic Johnson and Rock Hudson did it for HIV-AIDS; Emma Thompson personalized child soldiering when she adopted a former child soldier in 2003.
Second, different celebrities seem to be attracted to different types of activism, each of which has different costs, risks and effects. Leonardo diCaprio may be the celebrity most associated with conflict diamonds, but he has been relatively uninvolved in overt lobbying on the issue beyond interviews about the film itself.
Third, it’s possible to hypothesize that some of these strategies make a much bigger splash than others. Artifacts are useful for shaping public awareness, but generally come late in the policy chain and have minimal effect on agenda-setting and governance over global problems. Resource transfers no doubt provide much-needed capital for campaigns, but do they also serve as a means for celebrities to avoid greater involvement in issues or suggest to consumers that they can make a change simply by going shopping? Direct lobbying can matter in policy response, but imagine how celebrities could assist with the initial emergence of new issues by leveraging their unique access to elites much earlier in the agenda-setting process.
A while ago there was some discussion on this blog about the definition of “celebrity” activism for the purposes of empirically studying the entertainment industry’s role in advocacy campaigns. A question was raised about what constitutes celebrity status, what constitutes activism, how much the two co-constitute one another in these cases.
Jeff Skoll weighed in on this last week in his comments at the Global Philanthropy Forum 2008 Annual Conference in San Jose. Skoll, who founded the Skoll Foundation to create independent films on social topics, believes the definition of “celebrity” can include former political leaders, if they get involved in the entertainment industry. From the conference blog:
“Calling former Vice President Al Gore ‘the George Clooney of Climate Change,’ Jeff reminded us that what was once a nerdy power-point delivered by Gore to scientific audiences when I worked with him in government, was now transforming public attitudes, alerting all to the climate crisis.”
I’m not sure I agree that Clooney and Gore are really the same type of actor wielding the same type of power just because they’ve both appeared in influential films. They come from different institutional locations, Clooney uses his prior celebrity status to do activism, Gore’s celebrity status was constituted in part by his activism. (That is, was he a celebrity before the film?) Even their films are different – Clooney does blockbusters, Gore did a documentary. Does this suggest a continuum of celebrity activists with variation that may also affect the influence they have?
Steven Spielberg has withdrawn from his role as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics to protest China’s policy towards Darfur. Seemingly, yet another example of “celebrity activism” around human security issues.
I blogged about this before. As I continue to think about the role of celebrity activism in human security campaigns, I’ve been pondering who actually counts as a celebrity? Performers clearly do. But what about other well-known members of the entertainment industry – writers, producers? What about well-known figures who perform public, rather than media roles? In a digital world, where do the lines blur between political, cultural and religious “celebrities”? Also, is there an analytical difference between celebrity “activism” and “celebrity activism”?
An example of the former conundrum. The transnational advocacy literature sometimes refers to Princess Diana’s role in championing the landmines issue. But was her role more analogous to that of Bono re. debt relief? Or more analogous to Hilary Clinton’s championing of attention to sex trafficking? Was Diana a celebrity in the movie-star sense or a political figure in the statesperson sense? What about Al Gore? Is he a former president or a movie star? Few would doubt that his “celebrity” activism has drawn new attention to climate change as an issue. And are religious figures such as the Dalai Lama or Pope genuine “celebrities”? Are you a “celebrity” if you are not routinely featured in the tabloids?
And what do we mean by activism anyway when it comes to celebrities? There is personal activism, where a celebrity uses his or her renown as soft power in their own civic work – as the LiveAid events depicted in the Nickelback video suggest. And then there is the embedding of activism into media outputs produced by celebrities themselves – such as the video “If Everyone Cared” itself or the film “Blood Diamond.” Are these activities really comparable? Should they not be disaggregated somehow in order to gauge the relative influence of celebrities in global politics?
Some careful attention to the actual role of celebrities in transnational campaigns – for better or worse – is long overdue by IR scholars. But there are conceptual problems to deal with first. Who can offer a parsimonious definition of “celebrity” or of “celebrity activism” that might guide rigorous research on the subject?
From USA Today: “Darfur Benefit Party Brings Celebs Out in Force”
While Forest Whitaker chatted with a refugee, his wife, Keisha, worked a table selling her line of lip gloss, with money going to the IRC. Her top seller: the shade she named Forest.
Whitaker, who arrived directly from the Toronto set of Repossession Mambo, said issue-oriented films remain high on his agenda. In March, he’ll shoot Hurricane Katrina-related The Patriots, to be directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four).
Shopping for jeans and dresses, Heather Graham said she was disappointed “that our country isn’t doing more for Darfur. Africa’s one of those places that really needs help.”
It’s easy to make light of the glitterati for this self-serving humanitarianism. (For another example, click here.) Celebrities use causes to brand themselves.
But so what?
Governments do the same thing when they tie foreign aid to official recognition of their beneficence. And whether it is Bono peddling poverty reduction, George Clooney advocating for Darfur, or Leonardo diCaprio condemning conflict diamonds, celebrity sponsorship seems to go hand in hand with public awareness of global issues.
But scholars of humanitarian affairs should be asking: under what conditions are these humanitarian players effective in practical terms, and at what? Is theirs an agenda-setting effect: can the rise of new issues in the transnational primordial soup be traced to celebrity influence? Or do they essentially bandwagon on issues that have already gained prominence? If so does this at least have a catalyzing effect on transforming campaigns into mass movements? Do they exercise power, as Dan Drezner’s recent National Interest piece argues, through social networks of access to policymakers and donors – civic activism plus? Or, is the power of celebrities not their personal crusades but the stories they tell on screen?