Celebrity promotion of charities is ineffective at raising awareness, but can make the stars more popular with the public, according to two papers. This will be a surprise to both celebrities and charities, since campaigning for worthwhile groups has always been done by celebrities and charities seek them out because of the belief that people will donate after endorsements when they otherwise might not.

Or so it seems. It may be that organizations are biased toward success stories and don't see how often it does little.

Recently, for example, actor Mark Ruffalo, The Incredible Hulk from the "Marvel's The Avengers" film, campaigned to get donations for Water Defense. He raised $182,000 and clearly they were not getting most of that money without his support. People even paid $2,500 for a personalized birthday greeting from him.

One of the giveaways in the
campaign. Credit: Water Defense

That seems to be the exception due to his enthusiasm, according to the recent articles by three UK academics, who write, "the ability of celebrity and advocacy to reach people is limited" and celebrities are "generally ineffective" at encouraging people to care about "distant suffering". 

Only just over 5,000 people saw this video and yet they raised over $180,000, so clearly the video was not the reason for the success of the campaign. 

Why so? It may be perception of how genuine they are. Ruffalo's enthusiasm was obvious whereas a celebrity in a television commercial about Oxfam may come across like they are just getting paid. A TV spot takes an hour of work by a celebrity whereas active and ongoing participation may come across as more genuine.

Professor Dan Brockington of The University of Manchester and Professor Spensor Henson of the University of Sussex, carried out two surveys, each of over 1,000 people, to ask about celebrities and campaigning, as well as running focus groups.They found that 66% of those surveyed could not link any celebrity with a list of seven well-known charities and non-governmental aid organizations (NGOs). 

"Our survey found that while awareness of major NGOs brands was high, awareness of celebrity advocates for those brands was low," they write in their article. "Instead it was plain from the focus groups that most people supported the charities that they supported because of personal connections in their lives and families which made these causes important, not because of the celebrities.

"The evidence suggests, therefore, that the ability of celebrity advocacy to reach people is limited, and dominated in Britain by some extremely prominent telethons and the work of a few stars."

Celebrities did not support charities in order to promote themselves, but this was the unintended outcome of their work, the researchers said.

"Regardless of what celebrities may want in terms of publicity – and the interviews suggest that many would seek to maximize the attention given to their cause, and not to them – it is clear that the celebrity can often do better out of this attention than their causes."

The seven organizations that two-thirds of people could not associate celebrities with were: Action Aid; Amnesty International; CAFOD; Christian Aid; Oxfam; Save the Children and the Red Cross.

In a separate article in the same journal, Dr. Martin Scott, University of East Anglia, said he had conducted focus group observations with 108 people, with almost half keeping diaries on their thoughts about poorer countries. 

"In the diaries, only 6% of all entries were about celebrity humanitarianism – almost all of which were about programs or advertisements in the build-up to Comic Relief," said Scott. "Celebrities were both valued for their seemingly instrumental role in drawing attention to worthy causes but, at the same time, this was often accompanied by cynical statements [written in the diaries] about their motivations for involvement or about the genuineness of their emotional responses.

"There were still a relatively large number of occasions in which seemingly authentic celebrities did appear to generate a distinct sense of proximity and agency vis-a-vis distant suffering." However, "overall, the results of this research suggest that celebrities are generally ineffective in cultivating a cosmopolitan engagement with distant suffering. In conversations about the mediation of distant others, research participants rarely talked about instances of explicit celebrity humanitarianism."

Published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies.
Source: SAGE Publications