Role of Celebrities in Social Movements
With the increase in ethical consumerism, companies and their respective brands are being marketed as socially responsible entities for them to remain sustainable. Owing to the fact that celebrities today are analogous to brands, they are compelled to exhibit social responsibility in to maintain their celebrity status. As a result, celebrities are increasingly becoming involved in social movements such as environmental conservation and wildlife preservation. The role that celebrities play in social movement is emphasized by the fact that it is becoming typical for celebrities to champion a certain cause. For instance, professional athletes are showing interest in charitable activities and urging children to pursue education first. Hollywood actors and musicians are being involved in health campaigns such as cancer awareness. Celebrities exploit the fact that they have millions of fans and followers to influence social movements. A notable example of a celebrity who takes an active social position is Leonardo diCaprio, who is involved environmental activism through his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. The organization has the mission of protecting the Earth and ensuring that humankind and the world of nature exist in harmony. The modern-day celebrity is capable of mobilizing social resources and creating a collective awareness about a social issue. This paper explores the role that celebrities play in social movements.
Before delving deep into the role that celebrities play in social movements, it is imperative to acknowledge that celebrities do not derive their social influence from formal, institutional power; instead, their social influence comes from the attention that they receive from the public. In modern societies, celebrities exist mainly in the television and film, sports, music, and to a lesser extent, art and literature. Despite the fact that celebrities have historically been able to forge ties with powerful government officials and are likely to take advantage of their celebrity status to run for office such as Ronald Reagan, it is important to note that celebrities’ position in the society is unique because they are independent from the institutions of the state. Two distinct characteristics of celebrities shape the roles that they play in social movements. Firstly, the celebrity industry focuses on the development of notoriety by using closely related sub-industries including talent agencies, management, entertainment law and public relations. The celebrity industry is characterized by the domination of public relations and marketing with the main aim of managing public attention for purposes of profit. When celebrities opt to participate in social movements, they usually do so for profit and increasing the attention they receive. In other words, just like companies are involved in social projects to enhance their corporate image, celebrities take part in social movements to build their image and augment their celebrity status. Secondly, over the years, the media coverage of celebrities has been increasing, which has resulted in doubts in the assertion that celebrity status stems from intrinsic, natural personal attributes. As a result, the involvement of celebrities in social change is being questioned with respect to the genuineness of their actions. Having acknowledged that celebrities thrive on the attention they get from the public, especially through public relations, their ability to mobilize social resources is enormous, which underscores their significant role in social movements.
The role that celebrities play in social movements can be explored from a resource mobilization perspective. In this respect, social movements require the deliberate use of resources such as public support, money and time for social gains. When looked at from this point of view, it is evident that celebrities are an important resource for social movements. The primary asset offered by the celebrities to such movements relates to their huge visibility, which stems from the fact that celebrities are highly visible persons in society. Since celebrities are famous and have millions of fans and followers, they offer an effective platform to introduce a social movement to the public. According to Brockington, the fame that accompanies celebrities makes them newsworthy; therefore, they are in a position to make news. It means that the presence and participation of a media-qualified celebrity can elevate an event to be newsworthy. When a well-known celebrity with a good star power takes part in an event, media presence and public attention is guaranteed, which would have otherwise been discarded.
Secondly, apart from creating media and public attention to a cause, the involvement of celebrities can also attract other supporters. According to West, the involvement of celebrities in a social movement can expand the audience. For instance, individuals with no prior interest in environmental conservation might listen to a public message simply because the message features Brad Pitt. Similarly, pop music lovers may attend an event that focuses on ending violence against children to see Lady Gaga, yet end up hearing talks that touch on violence targeting children. Some celebrities are known to offer conditions for their involvement in social movements upon considering personal career benefits whereas others are genuinely concerned about the issues and exploit the attention they have to bring the issue into the public light). Moreover, the involvement and presence of celebrities in social events increases their attractiveness to prospective supporters. West points out that seeing a celebrity perform or make an appearance is an incentive to participate in the event. As a result, prospective participants may be motivated to attend the event just like the celebrity, with the hope of interacting with the celebrity he or she adores. Potential social activists are also aware that the attendance of a celebrity is associated with a higher turnout as well as media coverage. With more participating in the event, there is a high chance that the activism will be a success. Moreover, higher numbers are an indicator that the social movement is strong and that the ability of celebrities to attract large audiences is significant for such movements.
The third role played by celebrities in social movements relates to fund-raising assistance needed by social movement organizations to champion their causes. The higher visibility and media coverage associated with the involvement of celebrities play an important role in fund raising. Moreover, celebrities are involved directly in the process of raising funds. Successful celebrities such as professional athletes and actors often have more funds at their disposal when compared to regular participants in such movements. As a result, they can make significant financial contributions to the movement. Moreover, they can also make contributions to the movement in terms of their time such as performing in such events and being featured in public advertisements. West argues that celebrities prefer their names to be linked with good causes since it is good for PR. Therefore, the more noble campaigns they engage in, the more love they get from the public. Although celebrities are often subject to criticism that their motive to participate in charity is to improve their brand, there is no doubt that charities and social movements depend significantly on celebrities for funding, getting attention and increasing awareness. For instance, a report by Forbes shows that, in 2012, the top 30 donations by celebrities to charities reached $ 64 million. In addition, celebrities’ involvement in social movements has also been reported to result in an increase in donations from the public towards a cause endorsed by a celebrity. The underlying inference is that, when celebrities are associated with a social cause, its credibility is bolstered, which translates to more donations. In the same way they are capable of bringing attention to a product, celebrities can bring attention to social causes through the creation of image-related links associated with attributes such as trustworthiness, expertise, likeability and attractiveness.
It explains why numerous non-government organizations are establishing linkages with celebrities for the purpose of raising funds for further causes in human health, education, the environment, culture and arts, and poverty among others. With celebrities on board, social movement organizations can allot more resources to achieving their mission rather than focusing fundraising activities. Moreover, celebrities can take part in smaller fundraising activities, providing social movement organizations with closer contacts to access more funding. This aspect is evident by the fact that social movement organizations are increasingly relying on cocktail parties, balls and dinners to raise funds. Musicians often plan events and devote the proceeds to charitable causes. For instance, comedians Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal founded the Comic Relief television show that has been airing since 1985. Its main aim is raising funds to offer assistance to the homeless. In general, social causes funded by celebrities receive public attention and appear credible, which in turn results in more funding.
Furthermore, celebrities play an important role in social movement organizations by providing them with linkages to policy makers and politicians. The allure of celebrities also extends to politicians and policymakers, which can be attributed to the need of sharing the celebrity spotlight. In this respect, a politician is more likely to schedule a meeting with, say Angelina Jolie to discuss policy issues associated with breast cancer than arrange a meeting with a lobbyist or a policy expert. In this respect, celebrities can offer connections for social activists. For instance, Elizabeth Taylor, a famous British-American actress, was well known for arranging meetings between AIDS activists and politicians. As a result, she used her credibility and influence to ensure that activists had access to politicians, which they would have otherwise been unable to.
Despite the beneficial roles that celebrities play in social movements, they also pose some risks and costs. Brockington argues that the very spotlight that accompanies celebrity involvement in a social movement may have a negative effect on the claims of the movement as well as its constituents. There is a possibility that the spotlight brought by a celebrity may focus solely on him/her rather than the social cause championed by the movement. Celebrities are likely to overshadow social movements, especially when the celebrity is media-anointed and lacks passion on the cause being furthered by the social movement. West points out that, although celebrities may not be self-serving when participating in a social cause or may be genuinely passionate about the issue, the society tends to focus the attention on the celebrities themselves rather than the cause. In other words, there is the possibility that celebrities use such causes to increase the attention that they get. Essentially, the resultant attention serves the celebrities and not the social movement. Under a limited media coverage space for social movements, a significant fraction is often allocated to celebrities, which implies the possibility of less coverage space allocated to activists and participants in a social movement. Concerns raised by celebrities on a social issue are likely to reach mainstream media outlets with relative ease when compared to the opinions of activists; however, the opinions of celebrities contain considerable less critical analysis and content. Under the best case scenario for social movements, the celebrity brings supporters and media attention to the cause. However, in most cases, the leaders of the social movements are edged out of the equation, when celebrities start playing a dominant role in the movement. As a result, the celebrity story is likely to hijack the social protest. Celebrity stories lack content regarding policies, politics and grass root action. When celebrities hijack social movements and become the leading activities, opponents are likely to discredit the movement. West also expresses concerns that even though celebrities may mobilize resources for social movements, they often try to control the manner in which they are used.
Social movements are often struggling to frame their activities and assertions in diverse platforms including the mass media; however, they are usually at a disadvantaged position when competing for attention with their opponents. Including celebrities as actors in the struggle for attention may be beneficial; nevertheless, social movements may not be in a position to define their public image and frame their claims. Simply stated, celebrities are likely to weaken the claims made by a social movement despite the fact they may bring with them the needed public support. McCurdy argues that celebrities’ involvement in social movements has the potential of shifting the frames of it, especially by deradicalizing and depoliticizing the claims of the movement. When celebrities participate in social movements, the possibility of the dissent being domesticated and institutionalized is accelerated. Moreover, there is the possibility that celebrities will only participate in social movements that advocate for liberal causes and require softer stances when compared to conservative causes. As a result, celebrities tend to shun conservative movements such as the anti-abortion movement in favor of abortion-rights movement, homelessness and environmentalism.
In conclusion, it is evident that celebrities play an important role in social movements, especially with respect to mobilizing social resources to contribute to the numerical strength and success of the movement. Celebrities also enable social movements to gain attention from the media and the public as well as raise funds to further their causes. In addition, celebrities provide social activists with connections to political decision makers. Despite these contributions that celebrities make to social movements, they also come with potential costs and risks. In this respect, celebrities are likely to hijack the social movement and weaken the stance being made by the social movement.