It makes sense that charities should ask celebrities to support their causes and appear in their ad campaigns, but does it actually do any good?
This was the question three researchers from the UK asked as they embarked on two public surveys of more than 3,000 people each, as well as focus group sessions to ascertain what impact, if any, celebrity involvement with charities has, and whether it makes the public more likely to donate or give their time for the cause.
It’s usually thought that celebrity endorsement helps to raise the profile of charities, making the cause more recognizable to people and therefore making the chance of donation or involvement higher. However, the researchers found this may not actually be true.
When given a list of seven well-known aid organizations and charities who all use celebrity faces, including Oxfam and the Red Cross, the researchers found that 66 percent of respondents couldn’t match the celebrities to the causes, despite the fact that charities were well known and recognized by the vast majority of people. In total, 75 percent of people also claimed that they didn’t respond “in any way” to seeing celebrities endorsing or advocating for charities.
That wasn’t to say that all celebrity charitable advocacy didn’t work — there were some celebrities among the selection that people did match to charities and who did seem to be effective in some cases, but the researchers believe that kind of so-called brand matching is dominated by just a few celebrities and as a result leaves little room for others. Those celebrities included actor George Clooney, musician Bono and actor Joanna Lumley.
There’s also another aspect to why people might not respond to celebrity/charity ties. Despite the fact that none of the celebrities in the study supported charities to promote their own work, whatever that was, they inevitably did earn promotional opportunities, and this might be turning people off from charitable giving.
Something else did make a difference however, and in a positive way. The researchers, writing in the International Journal of Cultural studies, say, “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.”
As noted above, the research team also conducted focus groups with 108 people. About half kept diaries on their perceptions of poorer countries and how their thoughts might change regarding charitable giving.
The researchers found that only about six percent of diary entries referred to celebrity advocacy, and most of those related to specific charity days or events, such as the UK’s Children in Need event or Comic Relief. General advocacy tended not to feature.
When it did, two things seemed to happen. The respondents seemed on the one hand to be convinced that the celebrities were doing a good thing and that their endorsements would benefit the charities. However, at the same time, the researchers found a number of cynical statements in the diaries that seemed to call into question the motivations behind the celebrity’s charitable work.
That said, the researchers note that the celebrities did seem to have at least some positive impact. They appear to be good at bringing issues like child poverty or world hunger to the public’s attention, and in a few cases they did indeed encourage people to support a particular charity but, unfortunately, that was rare.
What can take from this? Well, the research is being called significant because of the way in which it helps us understand how the public reacts to celebrity advocacy. Does it mean that charities should completely abandon celebrity endorsement? It doesn’t seem so.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some celebrity advocacy undoubtedly raises the profile for certain issues. For instance, actor Angelina Jolie’s tireless efforts to promote an end to violence against women and human trafficking has earned a great deal of press and, if nothing else, has got us talking about those issues.
In addition, when Jolie revealed that she had elected to undergo preventive surgery after learning she had a very high chance of developing breast cancer and a significant risk of developing ovarian cancer, there was a marked uptick in awareness about the genetic markers for breast cancer and interest in whether being proactive to prevent cancer developing would be right for other women. Clearly the power of celebrity is there but unless there is a personal connection (Jolie’s own health, for instance) the public might not bridge the gap. It also tells us that celebrity power might just be overrated.
At the very least, though, there certainly seems to be scope for more research into how charity campaigns might cultivate more effective relationships with celebrities, which in turn could open up more public engagement and better targeted campaigns — something that will only benefit those who really matter in this equation: those people and animals who are in desperate need of assistance.
But what do you think? Does celebrity charity advocacy make you more likely to donate? Do you think it brings better awareness of certain causes? Or is it turn-off for you? Let us know in the comments below.
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