Celebrities are powerful. They are attributed almost God-like qualities (Rojek, 2001) by their adoring public and fulfil an arguably vital role in society. They are someone to aspire to, but also someone to criticise. An important part of the celebrity persona is attempting to show they care about and identify with the public. There is immense pressure to show they value their luxurious lifestyles. Moyo (2009) suggests that aid has become part of the entertainment industry, as celebrities seek to advocate it and ‘scold’ us for not giving enough. According to the Guardian, in 2010 the UN had at least 175 celebrities listed as “goodwill ambassadors” for various agencies (The Guardian, 2010). They may make the public sit up and listen but does their role not demean the hard work taking place at grassroot level?
“Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World” (Richey, 2011) describes the concept of Brand Aid. The author suggests that aid is just another marketable product. But instead of selling us a commodity, such as shampoo, celebrities are selling us a way to save lives. Celebrities can be heard where politicians are often not, and this can arguably only be a positive step for development. They reach massive audiences through appearances on TV chat shows, for example, and their status means people listen. If Kate Middleton is seen wearing a dress from the highstreet thousands flock to buy the same dress, so if the Duchess endorses a charity surely thousands will support it too? By using celebrities to promote development NGOs are arguably just using a model used by fashion business are all over the world: the power of celebrity. But instead of using the status of celebrities to sell a product NGOs are using it to help those in need. The actor Brad Pitt spent three days visiting Ethiopia on behalf of the non-governmental organisation ONE in 2005 (ONE, 2005). He managed to sign up 2 million people to the ONE campaign (The Guardian, 2010) and this simple act of just visiting a ‘developing’ country brought the issue of HIV and AIDs in Ethiopia to the forefront of international press. Actors like Pitt make development ‘trendy’ and bring it to audiences that may not have otherwise engaged with the issue. Jackson and Darrow (2005, p.80) suggest how celebrity endorsement makes issues more “palatable” for younger audiences.
Another example of celebrities bringing development to the forefront of media attention is when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited a UNICEF centre to highlight the 2011 crisis in the Horn of Africa. At the time the Google search term “Wills and Kate unicef” uncovered 897 articles. The google search term “horn of africa drought 2011” uncovered only 271 results (The DiA Blog, 2011). Whilst it was significant that their visit made people consider the issue, many of the resulting news articles focused on the possibility of the Duchess being pregnant, rather than the drought in Africa (The DiA Blog, 2011). It is too simplistic to view high numbers of readers as a success – how many people went on to actually donate or engage with the crisis? Kim Kardashian’s visit to Haiti, following the breakdown of her marriage, was arguably a PR stunt to make her look “sacrificing and compassionate” (The Guardian, 2012). In cases like this celebrities actually damage development as they turn charity visits into fashion shows and use the trip to make them look super-humans who can save the ‘developing’ world. In all too many cases the celebrities become the focus of the story, which is arguably what many of the stars want. People were not looking at the articles because they wanted to engage with the issue or even donate aid, but because they wanted to speculate about a celebrity. Goodman and Barnes (2011) argue that this role of celebrities in deciding “who” and “what” to save and the focus on these individuals means the more important issues of poverty and inequality are often forgotten.
Celebrities also have an alarming amount of political power. Stars such as Bono and Bob Geldof have even been involved in UN deliberations. It could even be argued that the music you listen to has more of an impact on development than the democratically appointed representatives (Maclachlan, Carr and Mc Auliffe, 2010). This is worrying as it is important to remember that these are individuals who have no training or expertise in ‘development’, undermining the role of those who devoted their whole lives to causes.
Although it may seem like the development industry should move away from using celebrities to fundraise and raise awareness it is important to remember that this would be very difficult. Issues such as infant mortality, which are an important part of development, can be alienating due to their morbid nature. There is no more effective way for NGOs and other activists to reach audiences than jumping on the celebrity bandwagon.
The DiA Blog (2011) Celebrities and Development: Should they Mix? Available at: http://developmentinaction.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/celebrities-and-development-should-they-mix/ (Accessed: 11 November 2012).
Goodman, M.K. and Barnes, C. (2011) ‘Star/poverty space: the making of the “development celebrity”’, Celebrity Studies, 2:1, 69-85.
The Guardian (2010) The issue of celebrities and aid is deceptively complex. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/dec/17/celebrity-aid-development-bono-brad-pitt (Accessed: 11 November 2012).
The Guardian (2012) Where celebrities become philanthropists. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/29/when-celebrities-become-philanthropists (Accessed: 11 November 2012)
Jackson, D.J. and Darrow, T.I.A. (2005) ‘The influence of celebrity endorsements on young adults’ political opinions’, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(3): 80-98
Maclachlan, M., Carr, S.C. and Mc Auliffe, E. (2010) The aid triangle: recognizing the human dynamics of dominance, justice and identity. London: Zed Books.
Moyo, D. (2009) Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa. London: Allen Lane.
ONE (2005) Brad Pitt and DATA conclude 3-day visit to Ethiopia. Available at: http://www.one.org/c/us/pressrelease/209/ (Accessed: 11 November 2012).
Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity. London: Reaktion.