Blog post

Celebrity endorsement: the curse of good causes?

4 min read
16 Apr 2014

A recent article in the Guardian [1] calls celebrity endorsement ‘the curse of good causes’. The article comes across as a personal attack on celebrity culture as ‘a dystopia seething with hypocrisy and soaked with vanity’ transferred to its relation to charitable causes. The arguments for disdaining celebrity involvement in charity are surely familiar:

1. Celebrities are not sincere in their support of good causes: all they care about is getting positive publicity and feeding their narcissistic impulses;

2. Celebrity endorsement trivialises the important causes it is related to;

3. People will only pay attention to the cause because of the celebrity’s association with it, and not because of its importance;

4. Celebrity endorsement sometimes goes badly wrong – for example, when a celebrity’s actions go directly against the ethos of the charity they are supporting;

5.�� Celebrity culture is narcissistic and shallow in itself, and celebrity endorsement of charities is a part of it.

I believe that these fail to establish that celebrity endorsement should be avoided. In fact, my aim it to show that there are good grounds on which to support it.

**First of all, what is the value of celebrity endorsement? **

Argument 1. seems to be based on the assumption that the value of someone’s involvement in a cause comes from the motivation behind it. If their motivation is selfish or insincere, then their involvement is worthless. This seems very implausible. If someone chooses to donate to charity because it makes them happier, or because it will improve their public image, the money they donate will still have a valuable impact: it could save lives, prevent suffering, decrease inequality, or improve someone’s chances of success in life. All of these things seem very valuable.

Celebrities’ motivations for supporting a charity are irrelevant to the impact they have. Furthermore, even if in some cases they are driven exclusively by self-interest, it seems unlikely that that is always the case. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Bono, or Elton John, who have shown a long-term commitment to a cause accompanied by generous donations and knowledge about it, are probably driven at least in part by a serious concern for the causes they engage with.

If it isn’t their motivation, what is the value of celebrity endorsement? Like any individual’s support of a charity, it lies in raising awareness of a problem – which may in the long term contribute to social or political change regarding the issue – and in moving donations to the charity – both from the individual and from people she reaches out to. Due to celebrities’ public presence, access to media platforms, and the admiration people often have for them, their support of a cause stands the chance of scoring highly both in raising awareness and in driving donations. If people only pay attention to the cause because of the celebrity, it is still good that they are paying attention to the cause (so argument 3. does not carry much weight). There is some evidence for celebrities’ involvement increasing donations: researchers at Rutgers-Camden looked at a sample of 500 non-profit organisations and concluded that donors gave 1.4% more to charities associated with celebrities than to those without celebrity endorsement. As celebrity endorsement can also reduce the resources a non-profit needs to allocate to fundraising, this means that a lot more can be invested in the charities’ goals. The positive impact of celebrity endorsement on support for a cause seems to indicate that people learn more about it and take it more seriously, not that it becomes trivial, as stated in argument 2. above. [2, 3]

It is true that sometimes celebrity endorsement goes wrong, as argument 4 states. If a celebrity is incoherent in her support of a cause – for example, when Naomi Campbell wore a fur coat while supporting PETA – this will make her lose credibility and appear hypocritical, which won’t have a good effect on the charity. But this only means that celebrity endorsement needs to be done well, as does any activity to help a charity. Ideally, the celebrities involved will have knowledge and interest in the cause: this will make them more persuasive and effective in reaching their aims.

The case for celebrity endorsement of charities is much the same as for any other marketing campaign. To address point 5., whatever one thinks of celebrity culture, it is part of the society we live in, and we must work with what there is to bring change. If celebrity endorsement is a good way of reaching more people and getting more funds, as it seems to be, one may make the case that it should be encouraged and celebrated.