Global Development Institute Blog

By Dan  Brockington

We have seen, in the first and second parts to this series, that development NGOs have systematically organised and professionalised their work with celebrity advocates, and that this does not necessarily resonate well with British publics. What we have yet to see is how well, and how effectively celebrity can work with political and corporate elites. To understand it properly however, we have to see how well this form of advocacy fits with current democratic trends. Specifically, celebrity advocacy is tailor-made for post-democratic societies, which tend to favour inegalitarian elites, even as it lobbies against international inequality.

Elite enthusiasm for celebrity advocacy is unmistakable. For corporate leaders there is a strong commercial logic here: celebrity endorsement is expensive, but companies can get free association (if not, strictly speaking, endorsement) between their products and celebrities, and promote their CSR, if they support charities with good celebrity advocates. Just take a look at large charities’ corporate sponsorship pages and see how often they offer association with famous supporters as a carrot to possible corporate supporters. There is also a personal pleasure, for corporate leaders will get to meet the celebrity supporters themselves – a perk of the job, a reward for their success.

A similar logic works with politicians – it’s both a personal reward, and has all sorts of valuable, positive publicity opportunities. As one experienced campaigner put it:

‘Suddenly you are meeting with the chief of staff or with the principal instead of a staff member two or three levels below, because you are accompanied by a celebrity. You also might be able to get a hearing on Capitol Hill because one of those testifying would be a celebrity… That happens all the time.’

Or as another put it:

‘If you find a Bono politicians will meet them… at the end of the day they all love to meet celebrities, they really do, it’s incredible.’

Knowing how political elites think is rather hard. By definition they are somewhat inaccessible. But two reports gathered, rather effectively, elite views about celebrity advocacy for development. One of them summarises discussions of a 3-day ‘Brookings Roundtable’ which brought together 50 very high-level advocates and policymakers in 2007. The other is an investigation by Brendan Cox into development campaigning based on over 300 interviews – again with good access to elite workers.

Both reports are clear that celebrity advocacy is useful for development causes, but they are interesting for the different reasons they give for this view. The Brookings Roundtable welcomed the public response to celebrity advocacy. Specifically this meant:

‘The hundreds of thousands who attended the 10 “Live8” concerts in the run-up to the Gleneagles [G8] summit, the more than 2.4 million signatures for the ONE Campaign, and the 63.5 million-strong audience for the 2007 U.S. television special American Idol: Idol Gives Back.’

Note that these are rather passive forms of participation, a commitment-lite (or even commitment-less) support that worries some commentators because it works by providing the appearance of popular support – offering a mandate for higher-level lobbyists.

Brendan Cox reports a similar finding, observing:

‘Engaging celebrities is particularly valuable in short-term campaigns that want to simulate mass public support but do not have the time to build it in key countries’ (p. 55).

Celebrity serves as a proxy for public engagement. It signifies the public, without necessarily enrolling them more actively.

Celebrity advocacy works because many Western democracies are in fact ‘post-democratic’. Post-democracy, as explored most lucidly by Colin Crouch, is characterised by a particular set of behaviours in the public and policymaking sphere, in which electorates are not particularly active or enthusiastic in their task of choosing representatives and holding them to account. Rather, ‘political elites have learned to manage and manipulate popular demands’, and ‘powerful minority interests’ are making the political system work for them’. Celebrity advocacy will clearly thrive in post-democratic societies because of the way it panders to elite desires, and because of the way it invokes public support, without necessarily requiring strong public participation.

Why does this matter? Post-democracy matters because post-democratic societies further the interests of powerful minorities such as corporate leaders and their lobby groups, whose prime interest is to make economies and societies more profitable, and not more egalitarian. As Thomas Pikkety has pointed out so powerfully, inequality matters because it is self-sustaining, and intensifying.

Celebrity advocacy may be Janus-faced. It offers the appearance of participation, of richer democratic involvement and engagement, and it can be enrolled in support of the fight against inequality. Yet at the same time these richer democratic processes can proceed quite compatibly with increasing inequality and fewer egalitarian policies. Celebrity advocacy is part of that procession.

Theorists of media and politics welcome the processes of engagement and involvement of celebrity, social media and other new forms of engaging politicians. But we must also consider the outcomes of that engagement. If celebrity advocacy does allow for greater public participation then it also means that we participate now more thoroughly in our own marginalisation. That is purely logical. For if, generally speaking, economic and social inequality has been increasing nationally and internationally, and if forms of media promote a more inclusive politics, so therefore we must have been participating more in that greater exclusion.

So, celebrity advocacy for international development is a strange beast. As we have seen from the first blog on this topic, this is now an organised and professional sphere of development activity. There is a great deal of celebrity advocacy in the public domain but it does not necessarily engage the public effectively. As the second blog showed, much of it seems to pass us by. But this absence of public appeal does not matter very much; the public believes that the public is engaged, and that gives all the legitimacy required. Moreover, as I have argued in this third blog, elites are thoroughly engaged by it. Celebrity advocacy appears tailor-made for post-democracies, for it has all the trappings of participation, but none of its fuss and time-consuming bother. It frees those who know most about the topic to get on with the real discussions. As another high-level campaigner put it to me:

‘The fewer [people involved] the better. If we could do all that without the bother of reaching out to millions of people we would do so. It’s cheaper and easier.’

And this may well work. It may well produce the sorts of policies which reduce poverty and inequality in particular instances. But will it do so more generally and in the long run? For it depends on elites being genial and selfless when the historical trend is that they do not behave that way. We can conclude, therefore, that a more agonistic politics is required than that which celebrity advocacy perpetrates.

Links and Further information
This blog summarises aspects of a newly published book that reports the findings of a research project into celebrity advocacy and international development. Others papers from this research are available on this page, and more about the research project behind it is available here.

This is the last in a series of three blogs which explores different aspects of celebrity advocacy. The work was funded by the ESRC (RES 070-27-0035).

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