Global Development Institute Blog

By Dan Brockington

One of the most intriguing facts about celebrity is how little we know about how the general public respond to it. And, when you do try and find out, then one of the most intriguing things is how little notice many people appear to take of it. Yes, there are studies of fans and fandom. But fans are not necessarily the best indicators of how broader publics respond to celebrities. Indeed, by definition (the word is short for ‘fanatic’) a fan is an unusually committed supporter.

Certainly there are lots of studies of celebrity in advertising. But most of these are based on US college students. In fact, they have only recently begun looking outside the US and in doing so have discovered that US subjects are more susceptible to celebrity advertisements than other groups. In short, we still do not know much about how different people in different countries respond to celebrity.

As part of my work on celebrity advocacy, I conducted two large-scale questionnaires, each of over 1000 people, and 9 focus groups. You have to be careful when using this sort of research in understanding media use. As Jo Littler put it to me, we cannot simply read ‘truth’ from these findings; after all we aren’t always fully conscious of exactly how we are being influenced. Different research techniques, involving more in-depth interviews, observation or diaries are also required. I have not undertaken these because I did not have the time to do so, so more research is required! But, to the extent that the sort of work that I undertook is useful, the findings are reasonably clear. They are simply that celebrity advocacy is not noticed very much by many of the general British public.

This is partly because we do not concern ourselves with celebrity affairs generally. We come across it incidentally when reading about other things. It is partly because we just do not seem to find it very interesting, or even very exciting. Only about 20% of people spend more than 5 minutes a week reading or talking about it. It is an oddly uninspiring thing. This is best expressed in the words of a television executive who worked a great deal with celebrity and was keen on introducing effective celebrity programming into her work, but who said that:

‘Mostly I’ve found that a lot of communities who really take their cause seriously don’t really care about the celebrity angle… and you think, wow we might all be kissing the ground that these people walk on day and night because that’s what the industry is used to but when it actually comes to real people’s lives and their experiences it makes no difference.’

It’s partly because celebrity advocacy works in counterintuitive ways. People who are most interested in celebrity (generally young women) are least interested in their celebrities’ advocacy of good causes; they like celebrity in part because it is precisely not dull, worthy and political. As Rachel put it during a focus group discussion about Bono:

‘To be honest I’m quite lost in all of this… I don’t even know who Bono is. I felt kind of stupid not knowing who that is, but to be honest I’m living a life where I don’t care. Most of my friends are ooh yeah Peter Andre, that’s nice, he looks quite fit. I know it’s quite shallow… but… For me celebrities and charities don’t mix very well.’

Conversely, those who are most sympathetic to celebrity advocacy are generally least amenable to celebrity itself. They are sympathetic because they already like those causes. For the purposes of international development this means that they are rather few, for the needs of international development excite only a small proportion of the population.

If all this is true, how can celebrity advocacy possibly ‘work’? The key is that much of celebrity is mediated; it is experienced more or less remotely via screens, print or radio waves. But personal encounters matter more. They mean our lives are touched by the glamour of the media world. Most especially, they work for the political and corporate elites who matter so much for fundraising and lobbying.

It works also because the British public, when they do come across celebrity advocacy, are remarkably sympathetic towards it. While a great deal of celebrity advocacy passes by rather unnoticed, we cannot escape it during the great telethons that periodically appear on our television screens. We tend to applaud because it raises money, and because we think that development problems can be solved with such charity. Curiously however, we are often better at remembering who undertook these tasks, particularly if they suffered for it, than what precisely they were suffering for.

The final, and rather ironic, reason why it works is simply because of the belief in celebrity power. The British public think that celebrity will get media attention, and that the media attention will bring public attention. As one of the focus group members commented, ‘the bottom line is that any celebrity will get a charity media coverage and that has to be good’. However, on inspection, few of the British public pay much attention to celebrity, but the vast majority of us think, falsely, that everyone else is looking. In our surveys, 74% of respondents thought that other people pay more attention to celebrity than them. That is impossible. Yet so many were keen to emphasise how little they themselves were swayed by it. In the same surveys, only 3% of respondents were prepared to consider that other people could think less of celebrity than they did.

The power of celebrity then, is not that people are looking and listening, but that we all think that they are. Indeed, this also explains the frustrations that celebrity liaison officers experienced in working with celebrity in their organisations that I mentioned in the previous blog. The belief in celebrity advocacy helps to explain its politics, and how even without much actual public interest it can still flourish in contemporary democracies. But to understand how it works, we need to better understand thinking on post-democracy, and to this we turn in the final installment.

Links and Further information
This blog summarises a newly published paper (scroll down to May 8th on that page) which is available on an open access license from this site. That paper, and others from this research are available on this page, and more about the research project behind it is available here.

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