How to Save the World: A Handbook for Celebrities

A recording of a lecture I gave on this topic is available at this site.

Let me congratulate you. If you are reading this blog then either you are one of the world’s great and famous people (well done!), or you are about to join their ranks (ditto!). This must be true because there is so much fame about these days that it is difficult to avoid. Pretty much the only people who are not famous or not yet famous are those who were famous and are now about to relaunch their careers.

In the off-chance that most readers are not yet A-listers, and still forging their public persona, then let me offer some advice on your charitable commitments. You will have noticed that almost all the greatest famous people try to save the world at least in some small way, a number of them have even become famous just for trying to do so. Doing something to improve humanity is a requirement of being famous. If you are new to the game then your agent will instruct you shortly to choose three good causes with which you have an authentic connection and lobby for them. If they have not done that yet then get a new agent.

There is, I admit, just a small chance that you are one of a radical vanguard which eschews fame and struggles to work out what all the fuss is about celebrities. Most of the time you will not be able to recognise who everyone else is apparently talking about. You may have read this post because you failed to notice the subtitle. Well do not give up just yet – its core argument may well fill you with joy. For I believe that you are not, in fact, part of any radical vanguard at all. The outrageous argument I want to put to you is that, in Britain, celebrity is a minority interest. It is not as popular as its populist appeal suggests.

However, if that amuses you, I’m afraid the happiness will be short-lived. For I will also argue that popular support is not necessary for celebrity advocacy to thrive. Celebrities will save the world, or at least shape it in powerful ways, even if we ignore them.

There has been a quiet revolution in the NGO movement in the last 15 years which has seen 75% of the largest set up professional bespoke celebrity liaison programmes dedicated to pursuing and deepening relationships with artists and talent. Managers and agents in turn have become adept at working with charities. So what does this this collective non-plussed reaction mean for this new organisation of relations?

It turns out that this is in fact surprisingly good news all round. In a new book out this month I have argued that celebrity advocacy is marked by four paradoxes of celebrity advocacy. The first is, as we have just seen, that celebrity advocacy occupies a significant proportion of the public domain, but does so without engaging particularly well with much of the public. But the second is that failure to engage does not really matter. Many people at the core of advocacy, and in the political and business elites whom the advocates are lobbying, simply do not notice any lack of engagement. In these circles celebrity advocacy can be remarkably effective. Celebrity works for them in ways which do not work for most of the public. Third, while celebrity advocacy exists to be seen and noticed by as many people as possible, the dazzle of flashbulbs and exposure provides an inscrutable veil over their real influence. The very act of appearing and being seen also conceals. In the glare of publicity it is we, the viewers and consumers of the spectacle, who are blinded.

And so what does all this mean for celebrity advocacy? Well, the fourth paradox is that celebrity advocacy works so well with elites that it might even be a progressive force. In the post-democratic societies dominated by exclusive power-brokers celebrity gets listened to, and if that could be wielded in the right hands it could lead to more progressive change. This is potentially good news for the development charities bent on improving the lot of the poorest and fighting injustice – and their celebrity supporters. The challenge is how to wield this strangely unearned power effectively.

This is the first in a series of four blogs which explores different aspects of celebrity advocacy. The work was funded by the ESRC (RES 070-27-0035). Here are second blog, third blog and fourth blog in the series.

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About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the University of Manchester
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