If ever there was a time to believe public interest in politics is on the rise, right now would be the time. Last month’s election to deliver America’s 46th president has resulted in the highest voter turnout in over a century; New Zealand’s politics has made global news headlines this year, thanks to their popular, re-elected prime minister, Ms Ardern, and her ‘Jacinda Effect’; and most notably the UK awaits the end of its Brexit transition period with bated breath. Yes, right now, politics is very much on the public’s agenda.
And whilst the public interest in politics appears to be on the up, so is interest from the celebrity, many of whom are exercising their right to vote by going over-and-above popping into their local polling station on election day, with their own campaign endorsements, videos, tweets and social media statements. Celebrities turning into ‘political influencers’ would appear to be trending.
Following months of election fever around the globe, here we take a look at how appropriate is it for famous faces to get involved in politics?
“I think you have to stand for something, and if you’re not standing for anything...you’re really just serving yourself.” — Singer-songwriter, Katy Perry, speaking of her political views, Vogue, 2017.
Historically, celebrity status has been earnt as a result of one excelling in their field. Those within sub-fields of the arts and sport have typically formed the majority of soft news, with non-celebrities, i.e., the general public, admiring celebrities for exceptional performance in these areas. Aided by agents and curated PR strategies, celebs have capitalised on their talents to earn personal support from fans as a means to build and maintain their careers. On the pitch, on the stage, on a blank canvas, relations with the public counts for everything.
And if you’re successful in doing this, would it not be a natural step to use your popularity for the greater good? From Ms Perry’s point of view, it’s about going above your day job to serve others, rather than yourself.
Katy Perry is just one of a number of famous faces to publicly endorse politicians in recent years, having campaigned for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Eight years earlier, TV presenter and media executive Oprah Winfrey supported then prospective Democratic nominee, Barrack Obama, even joining him on campaigns. The influence of ‘The Oprah Effect’ — the term usually used to describe the increase in sales of products Ms Winfrey endorses — was estimated by University of Maryland economists Garthwaite and Moore to have raised Obama an ‘extra one million votes.’
The power of celebrity influence is evident. Their endorsement of products, services, policies and parties is far reaching and widely recognised. In his 2017 book, ‘Celebrity Influence’, Dr Mark Harvey’s review of news found that when famous people discuss issues, they get disproportionately more coverage than politicians.
The media certainly likes to cover celebrity views. And like their ‘ordinary’ counterparts, famous people have a right to vote and a right to freedom of speech. Whether it's in a polling booth or their face on a shampoo advertisement, their choice to endorse something is not just permissible, but also legal. With their day jobs in the public eye, maybe it is inevitable that their opinions will also end up being in the public eye too.
Politicians arguably do the same thing; it’s just in their case, they’re elected and paid to debate their opinions by the state. Whether it’s celebrities standing for what they believe in, or politicians doing the same, everyone is entitled to an opinion, to be passionate about the issues they stand for.
So, it would stand to reason that celebrities are just as entitled to lobby and influence them, particularly when it comes to issues lower down on the government’s agenda, for example racial inequality, green issues, LGBT+ rights are all trending topics in the media which don’t always get as much focus as the economy, foreign policy and healthcare. Perhaps we need celebrities to help apply pressure to influence change in such ‘secondary issues’ and make the world a better place.
The only danger of this is that celebrities aren’t necessarily more informed than the public on the issues they stand for. With their status, therein lies a risk that the public may be more inclined to agree with celebrities they like purely based on who they are, without research and without qualifying the facts.
“If you do win an award tonight, don't use it as a platform to make a political speech. You're in no position to lecture the public about anything.” — Actor, writer and director, Ricky Gervais, addressing nominees at the Golden Globe Awards, 2020.
Whilst their intentions may be in the right place, perhaps celebrities should, like any communications campaign, consider the channel for which to deliver their messages.
Three years prior to ceremony host Mr Gervais’ briefing, actress Meryl Streep used her award acceptance speech to speak out against then US President Trump for his imitation of a journalist’s physical disability. Speaking of Trump’s behaviour during an election rally address, she said: “It gives permission for other people to do the same thing...disrespect invites disrespect”, whilst providing her support for the press to hold to account ‘every outrage’ in relation to those with political power.
The speech achieved widespread, global news coverage and perhaps was one of the prompts for Mr Gervais’ subsequent briefing. It’s just one example of a celebrity using a high-profile platform to deliver a politically-motivated message, which stirred a public debate: was it the right time, right place and the right person to do such a thing?
Some would describe it as the optimum opportunity to denounce the accused’s behaviour. Others, critical of the speech, suggested the ceremony is about celebrating success in acting, not about political messages. In a similar example, the European Broadcasting Union, organisers of music’s Eurovision Song Contest, explicitly ban political messages from the competition, stating that it is a ‘non-political event’.
Perhaps when it comes to such platforms, they should exclusively concern acting, music or sport and politics should be left at the door? One may argue, using award ceremonies to discuss political issues may detract from and even outshine the purpose of such celebratory events.
“I don’t have the education of a politician... but I have a social education having lived through this.” — Footballer, Marcus Rashford, makes a statement to his Twitter followers, September 2020
Amongst all this discussion, what does the audience of these celebrities, the general public, think about it all? Celebrities are admired for their innate talents and skill in their field, but do their fans even want to hear their political views? One YouGov poll would suggest that for British adults, not so much. From the sample of 1,800 people, when asked about celebrity involvement in political issues, just over half (52%) opposed, a third (33%) were indifferent and only 9% were in support. This would suggest that fans aren’t interested in the political thoughts of these celebrities.
But recent activities would suggest otherwise. Referring to his upbringing, suffering from child poverty, England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has used his position to secure government funding for millions of meals for schoolchildren over the summer holidays and into Christmas, to the tune of an extra £170 million funding for the winter break. Arguably not one campaign has garnered so much attention from the media, interest from the nation and independent businesses, with many of the latter inspired to provide their own ‘free school meals’ over the October half-term, even with ongoing Covid uncertainty in relation to their businesses.
On the other hand, despite a wealth of praise for placing pressure on the government, some were critical of Rashford, providing commentary on Twitter such as: ‘you earn 10 million a year and live in a mansion’. Evidently, not everyone is in support of celebrities wading in on government policy, even though the case in point successfully changed the government’s stance and fed hungry children.
Perhaps it’s more the case that it’s not a celebrity’s job to remedy social injustices – that is the job for governments. Those who are keen enough do have the opportunity to put themselves forward to join the debate – Trump, Reagan and Schwarzenegger have all found political success following high profile careers in other pursuits. But when progress is limited or slow a famous face can be the trick needed to help push a resolution over the line.
To summarise, whichever side of the debate one falls on, it is clear celebrities have the power to bring awareness and recognition to social issues and can engage the general public in politics. But there is a danger of their views not always being based on the facts. Maybe a more collaborative approach is what is needed: celebrities leveraging their positions to gauge what the public wants to achieve, and then politicians using evidence-based data and facts to decide policy.
From the view of the general public, much in the same way consumers make the final decision as to whether to part with their money or not, they also hold the power as to whether or not to listen to celebrities and what they stand for.