Celebrity Social Responsibility

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"With so many Hollywood actors, British rock stars and American talk show hosts beating a path to Africa - building schools, visiting refugee children, raising awareness on AIDS and the fighting in Darfur - it`s a wonder the entertainment industry can still function."
Scott Baldauf

In recent years celebrities have taken an active interest in world politics, donating significant sums of money, adopting children from developing countries, visiting refugee camps - the number of activities is endless. Some, like U2 singer Bono, have become well-recognized global activists. In 2006, Time Magazine declared him their "person of the year" for having "persuaded the world´s leaders to take on global poverty".
Celebrity involvement in politics is not a new phenomenon, just think of Bob Dylan or John Lennon´s songs in the 1960s. Then, in the 1980s projects like Bob Geldof`s LiveAid or Michael Jackson`s USA for Africa we
re brought into being in order to raise awareness for the suffering in third world countries.
But what really drives celebrity activism for global issues? Is it all good will and conscience or are they - much like corporations - merely window dressing?

We probably have to distinguish between two types of celebrities. The ones who really care and have a genuine interest and the ones who do it solely for reasons of self-promotion.

First of all, celebrity philanthropy can really make a difference. The United Nations have been actively approaching celebrities to become spokespeople of the organization, since Kofi Annan became Secretary General. On their website they say:
"Fame has some clear benefits in certain roles (...). Celebrities attract attention, so they are in a position to focus the world`s eye on the needs of children, both in their own countries by visiting field projects and emergency programmes abroad. They can make direct representations to those with the power to effect change. They ca use their talents and fame to fundraise and advocate for children and support UNICEF`s mision to ensure every child´s right to health, education, equality and protection."
The UN confirms that the use of celebrities has proved particularly effective both in raising awareness and in fundraising for the organization`s agencies.
Many NGOs, such as Oxfam rely heavily on celebrity ambassadors, since they reach people in a way an organization can`t.
So it is definitely the right thing to do. If you are an opinion leader and if you have the power to convince people to change their behaviour or simply to listen, then you should use it. There`s nothing wrong about it. There`s also no question that social causes do a great deal for the brand identity of the stars and the sponsors who embrace them.

But it seems like this has been taken to a new level. Nowadays, every celebrity has to attempt to save the world, even if they have no interest in doing so. They do it in order to remain celebrities. Howard Bragman, author of "Where`s my fifteen minutes?" says:
"You`ve got to have something for People magazine to shoot you at. You can`t just get $20 million a picture, you`ve got to serve turkey to the poor, too."

We live in a world were fame cannot be retained without continuous publicity. Celebrity activism is used to create positive press coverage and distract the public attention from past scandals (again, much like corporations use CSR). Angelina Jolie, once known as a drug abusive bad girl, totally repositioned herself through her work as a UN ambassador.
And then there´s the ones who just jump on the bandwagon. Madonna learned the hard way how fake commitment can backfire. Her adoption of a Malawian baby with procedures of dubious legality was a lesson learned for other celebrities. Lots of celebrities commit themselves to environmental issues without really knowing what they`re doing. This includes the story of Paul McCartney, who was given a hybrid car from Lexus. The car was specially flown in from Japan, therefore creating several hundred times more emission than it could ever save.

So some celebrities have an official capacity like the UN, some do it out of good will and some just for the publicity - but does it matter, as long as it works?
There is some serious criticism on celebrity activism. Some commentators, especially in Europe not only consider celebrity philanthropy non-genuine but criticize them for doing damage to Africa and other third world countries. In the Guardian, Nathalie Rothschild accuses Bono and the Live8 campaign for "perpetuating the undignified stereotype of Africans as poor, helpless and hapless. It was a campaign, not for global equality and modern development, but for miserably low aspirations." Celebrities are often accused of naivety, they tend to describe things in simplistic terms of good versus evil and black versus white.

In general, there`s nothing wrong about celebrities working for a good cause. Not matter what their true agenda is, they raise awareness, money and might eventually help the world to become a better place. But for the sake of their own reputation they should follow the same basic rules that apply to corporations when participating in CSR: be honest, be genuine and if you don´t care about the cause it might be better not to do it at all.

British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen addressed the issue in his movie Brüno, where the main character desperately tries to become famous and eventually records this charity song with Elton John, Bono, Sting and others:


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